The largest neighborhood organization in the city is now calling for a citywide election on a proposed $25 million recreation center.
The Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods also took an official position questioning whether the unusual bidding process proposed for the project does enough to protect taxpayers.
“As we see it, the project as proposed falls far short of the desired standard of public bidding and cost certification,” Laura Routh, the newly elected president of LAN, said Friday. “Under the conditions outlined thus far, we have no assurance that taxpayers will get full value for their money.”
The association held a meeting Thursday night — with about 20 members present — to craft a formal position on the project to deliver to city commissioners.
Routh said the group decided to ask city commissioners to conduct a citywide election on whether the project should move forward, “given the magnitude of the project and the resulting long-term debt to be incurred by taxpayers.”
As currently proposed, the city would spend $25 million for a 181,000-square foot-regional recreation center that would be part of a larger public-private sports park on about 90 acres north of the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
City commissioners have addressed the issue of whether the project should go to a citywide election. A majority of commissioners have said they do not believe an election is needed because the project is not proposing to raise any existing taxes.
Plans call for the recreation center to be paid for through proceeds of a sales tax approved by voters in 1994. The tax has been used to build multiple recreation facilities, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department building and other uses. Money is available in the sales tax fund because several long-term bonds have been or soon will be retired.
On Friday, Mayor Bob Schumm said he thinks there are reasons to not put the project to a citywide vote.
“The form of government is a representative form of government,” Schumm said. “As long as we’re not raising taxes, I don’t see the need to have a specific vote on it.”
Schumm said his read of the public, though, is that the community is supportive of the project.
“My feeling is that we have a majority of people in the community who want to see this through,” Schumm said. “The people who are a little ill at ease about it are concerned about the arrangement to deliver the project.
“The arrangement is unusual, but it comes up with a project that is quite extraordinary.”
As currently proposed, the project would create a partnership among the Kansas University Endowment Association, KU Athletics, the city and a private company led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel.
Fritzel is the Lawrence businessman who is providing the financing to build the KU facilities at the Rock Chalk Park site, which will include a track and field stadium, soccer field, softball stadium and other amenities. It recently was revealed that Fritzel ultimately will own the facilities that KU will use, and Fritzel will have the ability to use the facilities for other events, if certain conditions are met.
The city would own the recreation center and about 20 acres of ground within the Rock Chalk Park area. But as it is currently structured, Fritzel would have the inside track to build the city’s recreation center through a process that deviates from the city’s standard bidding policy.
Routh said members of LAN expressed support for the idea that the city needed more indoor recreation space, but questioned the bidding process and whether the city was placing the project ahead of other city priorities.
Schumm said he has become more comfortable with the bidding process in recent weeks.
As previously reported, KU Endowment — which is insisting upon building the city recreation center and then transferring ownership of it to the city in order to control the quality of the project — has agreed to accept two other bids for the work.
KU Endowment would invite bids from two other contractors — of the Endowment Association’s choosing — in addition to a bid from Bliss Sports, an entity that Fritzel controls.
If either of the bids from the other two contractors is lower than Fritzel’s bid, Fritzel would have a chance to match the bid and receive the work.
As has been the case from the beginning, Fritzel is pledging if the project has overruns that push the project to more than $25 million, he’ll cover those costs. The city believes the value of the project as it is currently designed is closer to $33 million, meaning Fritzel would be providing the city a value.
“I’m a lot more comfortable with it,” Schumm said of the proposed process. “We are going to have a market price established on this project. There will be two other bidders bidding on it, and we will know what we’re getting.”
Commissioners will be hearing rezoning issues and an application for a special use permit for the project at their Tuesday evening meeting.
But commissioners won’t take any action Tuesday that commits the city to moving ahead with the regional recreation center. The city won’t make such a commitment until it has seen proposed agreements with the KU entities and the Fritzel group.
Schumm said those agreements are scheduled to be completed by the commission’s Feb. 19 meeting.
“All the documents before they are signed will be in the public view,” Schumm said. “I’m trying as best as I can to be as transparent and as open with the public as possible.”