Tayler Tolefree, a middle blocker on Kansas University’s nationally ranked volleyball team, grew up playing the sport in Topeka.
The problem is, she told Lawrence city commissioners Tuesday night, she grew up in Lawrence.
City commissioners at their weekly meeting took their biggest step yet toward committing to a $25 million city recreation center/youth fieldhouse in northwest Lawrence after about 35 KU student-athletes and a host of other community members told stories of how the community’s indoor recreation spaces were sorely lacking.
“I really became excited when I heard about this project,” Tolefree said, “because I know it can represent the heart of sports activity in Lawrence.”
A majority of Lawrence city commissioners also agreed the project may end up representing something else: a great deal. Commissioners on a 4-1 vote directed staff members to begin crafting formal agreements to commit to building the project with the Kansas University Endowment Association.
“We know this project is going to guarantee us a world-class facility on a municipal budget,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said. “That is an opportunity I can’t turn down.”
Commissioners agreed to begin crafting agreements that would allow the project to be built on about 100 acres north of the northeast intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. In addition to a 181,000-square-foot, eight-gym recreation center/youth fieldhouse, the project also would include KU-owned facilities for track and field, softball and soccer.
City commissioners have conducted preliminary negotiations with KU Endowment that cap the city’s cost for the project at $25 million. For that price, the city would receive the recreation center, eight lighted tennis courts, about five kilometers of multipurpose trails, and would own the building and the 20 acres of real estate that houses the city facilities.
The city is estimating its portion of the project will have a market value of about $33.5 million, even though the city would pay only $25 million for the project. KU Endowment and its donors would pick up the additional cost of the project. KU also would be responsible for paying for the KU-owned facilities that would be part of the sports complex.
The deal, though, has details unusual for a city project. KU Endowment is insisting that it build the building using its own contractor rather than allowing the city to put the recreation center construction out for bid. KU Endowment is planning to use a development group led by Lawrence builder Thomas Fritzel.
Several members of the public said the city didn’t have enough details about the arrangements between KU Endowment and various private parties to move forward with such a large project.
“I’m feeling very nervous about the enormity of this project and how much it costs,” Lawrence resident Tom Harper said. “And there are so many moving parts to that I’m a little overwhelmed by it.”
But supporters of the project outnumbered opponents on Tuesday night. About 35 female athletes from KU showed up at City Hall to show support for the project. Commissioners also heard from parents of Lawrence children who said the city had fallen far behind what other communities offer in terms of indoor recreation space.
Commissioners have been told by consultants that the 181,000-square-foot recreation center can attract regional and perhaps even national youth tournaments to the city. A report earlier this year estimated about 30 tournaments and camps a year could use the center.
But on Tuesday, commissioners sought to downplay those projections.
“I believe the economic benefits of this facility will be real, but I’m not relying on those numbers to make this decision,” City Commissioner Hugh Carter said. “I’m thoroughly convinced of the community need for this center. First and foremost, this center will serve the recreation needs of this community.”
City staff members are expected to work on crafting formal agreements for the project over the next several weeks. Those agreements will be brought back to city commissioners for review and approval.