It takes a while to get all the questions answered on a project with as many pieces as the proposed recreation complex at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway — and Lawrence city commissioners are right not to commit to the project until at least most of those questions are answered.
That hasn’t happened yet.
The overarching question that many taxpayers and some commissioners seem to be struggling with is exactly what purpose and what population the proposed complex is intended to serve. The complex is being touted as a way to serve local recreation needs, attract large tournament events to Lawrence and forge a beneficial partnership between the city and Kansas University, which reportedly has committed to building a new track and field facility next to the proposed recreation center.
There is a shortage of basketball courts for local leagues and recreation purposes, we are told. The new recreation center would supply eight full-sized courts to address that need but would place them at the far edge of the city, a less-than-ideal location for local users. If the goal is primarily to serve local recreation needs, many residents argue it would be better to build the center on land that is more centrally located or even use the money to build two or three smaller centers that would be more accessible to various Lawrence neighborhoods.
The second goal, which seems to be largely driving the proposal at this point, is to build a recreation center that will attract outside visitors to Lawrence for basketball and volleyball tournaments. This is an attractive prospect but something of a gamble. It’s hard to know how many tournaments the city would attract or exactly what the benefit to the city or other Lawrence businesses would be.
The third goal — a partnership with KU — also is attractive but also raises questions. The community has heard almost nothing directly from KU Athletics about this plan. It would be great to have a KU track, field and soccer facility that would attract national NCAA events, but is the northwest location the only, or even the best, location for such a facility? The KU facility would be a fine neighbor for a city recreation center, but there seems to be little synergy between the two facilities except for a common parking lot.
One benefit for the city in this project appears to be the willingness of developer Thomas Fritzel to offer a favorable financing deal that will allow the city to build a larger recreation facility than it otherwise could afford. That could be a savings for the city, but it also would mean some loss of city control for the project. Also, remember Fritzel is a developer and few developers enter into deals unless there is a profit angle somewhere in the project. The $10.7 million required to make infrastructure improvements for the proposed site also needs to be figured into the equation.
The proposed recreation project is a noble attempt to meet a number of city needs and goals, but it also runs the risk of trying to achieve so many goals that it doesn’t do any of them very well.