In recent weeks, considerable attention has been focused on the unorthodox method by which a proposed recreation complex in northwest Lawrence would be bid, constructed and operated.
Lawrence taxpayers, however, shouldn’t let the controversy surrounding the project’s primary developer distract them from initial concerns many people had about how and whether the city will be able to attract enough tournaments and other events to make its new recreation center financially viable.
One way or another, the city is almost certain to be committing $25 million to this project either for the recreation center itself or for infrastructure in the area. City officials are hoping that about 32 tournaments or other events a year will help offset the costs of operating the facility. Even if the center attracts that many events, city officials project that user fees and tournament rental fees will fall about $350,000 a year short of covering the center’s operating expenses. If the city fails to attract that many events, it will have to pay even more to subsidize the facility.
As officials have noted, Lawrence, with its ties to Kansas University basketball and other sports, is an attractive draw, but it will have competition. The local center is planned to be 181,000 square feet and include eight full-sized basketball courts along with a walking track, fitness room, indoor turf field and other facilities to serve local recreation needs. Last month, Wichita officials approved an application for state STAR bonds (the same tool used by Wyandotte County for the Legends development) to support a new athletic facility to target regional and national tournaments. The first phase of the project being developed by the private GoodSports will include 12 full-sized basketball courts. However, their facility is only 65,000 square feet, less than half the size of the Lawrence project. The Wichita facility will be part of a larger development that will include retail and hotel projects.
In August, the Journal-World also reported on two multigym facilities in Johnson County that will compete with Lawrence for regional tournament business. Counting on 32 events a year to help pay for the city’s share of the Rock Chalk Park development is not without risk.
Proponents see the potential benefits of this project as worth the risk, but many taxpayers may have doubts. At the very least, the scale of this project and its long-term costs make it absolutely necessary for city officials to fully disclose all of the financial arrangements and make sure they’ve anticipated — and taken steps to protect the city’s interests regarding — all the potential issues and pitfalls involved in this project.