Several Lawrence city commissioners have said they’re confident a majority of residents support a plan to build a $25 million regional recreation center in northwest Lawrence, even though the project won’t be put up for a citywide vote.
The upcoming Lawrence City Commission election may provide a clue about whether their sentiment is correct.
The Journal-World this week found that the field of City Commission candidates is fairly evenly divided on the project that would build a 181,000-square-foot recreation center, lighted tennis courts and other amenities adjacent to the proposed Rock Chalk Park development that will house Kansas University track, soccer and softball facilities.
Of the nine City Commission candidates interviewed by the Journal-World, four of them — Mike Amyx, Scott Criqui, Michael Rost and Leslie Soden — expressed significant reservations about the size, scope or financial aspects of the project.
The remaining five — Judy Bellome, Rob Chestnut, Jeremy Farmer, Reese Hays and Terry Riordan — either expressed various levels of support or were noncommittal about the project.
Candidates were fairly united on the idea that the city had a shortage of indoor recreation space but were split on whether the city should address those needs through a large regional recreation center or through a more traditional neighborhood center.
Candidates also were divided on whether the recreation center issue will become a major issue in the upcoming City Commission campaign, which will have a Feb. 26 primary election to narrow the field from 11 to six. Three commissioners will be chosen by voters in the April 2 general election.
The current group of city commissioners have indicated they may decide whether to move forward on the project in mid-February. And that has caused some candidates to speculate that by April the issue won’t weigh heavily on the minds of voters.
“I think by the time the campaigns get going, people will know more details about the project and will be more comfortable with it,” Riordan said. “I don’t see it as a big ongoing issue, but I think it is a big issue right now.”
Others, though, said without a citywide vote on the issue, many voters may use the City Commission elections to express their opinions on the project.
“I think this issue is really going to get people engaged, involved and reading about the City Commission candidates,” Rost said. “I think they may not be able to do anything about this project, but they can put people on the City Commission to ensure this type of process won’t happen again.”
Here’s a look at each candidate’s position on the recreation center. Attempts by the Journal-World this week to reach candidates Nicholas Marlo and William Olson weren’t successful.
For Amyx, a downtown barbershop owner and the lone City Commission incumbent in this year’s race, the size and cost of the proposed recreation center weigh heavy on his mind.
“I believe a more neighborhood-size facility would have been good for the northwest area of town,” Amyx said. “It would have been a better fit for Lawrence at this time.”
Amyx said he’s also concerned the size of the facility — which is proposed to have eight full size basketball courts, an indoor turf field, gymnastics area, wellness center, walking track and other amenities — will create operating costs that create a strain on the city’s budget. City officials have estimated the fees and facility rentals generated at the facility will fall $300,000 to $350,000 short of covering the operating expenses of the building. The city is projecting that it will have adequate reserves in its sales tax collections to cover that annual shortfall, but Amyx said it makes him uncomfortable.
“That expected shortfall tells me that I need to see a project that is going to be closer to paying for itself,” Amyx said.
Amyx also said he doesn’t support the proposed bidding procedure for the project. The building, as proposed, would be built by the Kansas University Endowment Association, on behalf of the city. KU Endowment is proposing a bidding process that would deviate from the city’s standard open bidding process.
KU Endowment would invite selected companies to bid, with the understanding that an entity controlled by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, who is helping finance the KU portion of Rock Chalk Park, would have a chance to match any low bid.
“My particular feeling is that because public funds are to be used for the project, it should be bid in a traditional way,” Amyx said. “That would be my preference. That is the way the public would know if it is getting the best value for its dollar.”
On the issue of whether the project should be put to a citywide vote, Amyx recently voted with his other four city commissioners against the idea. But Amyx voted with the caveat that if the public were to present a sizable petition asking for a vote, he would support placing the issue on the ballot.
Bellome, the retired CEO of Lawrence’s Visiting Nurses Association, said she sees a lot of positives with having a regional recreation center that would be adjacent to approximately $50 million worth of KU facilities, such as the track and field stadium, soccer field and softball stadium.
She said as member of several Parks and Recreation classes, she’s noticed crowded conditions and thinks now is the time for the city to consider a recreation project, especially if Fritzel or other private entities are willing to help the project.
“I like the partnership idea,” Bellome said. “I’ve always been someone who looks to collaborate.”
But Bellome said she still would like a little more explanation about how the project will fit in with other city priorities.
“I am not opposed to the size of the facility,” Bellome said. “But I am concerned about the $25 million going into it. What does that mean we won’t be able to fund?
“It sounds like a very worthy project, but I have learned over the years that you prioritize what you need most.”
Bellome said she believed the bidding process can work, as long as the city is open with the public about the process. She said given the fact that KU Endowment and Fritzel were teaming up to donate about 26 acres of ground to the city for the project, it was understandable that they would want to have some control over the building of the facility.
“As long as that is disclosed and it is all out there for the people to see,” Bellome said. “That is a big donation.”
Bellome also said she didn’t think the project needed to go to a citywide vote. She said she had concerns about the multifaceted project being boiled down to a simple up-or-down vote.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they are not opposed to the whole thing but are just opposed to parts of it,” Bellome said.
Chestnut, the chief financial officer of a Topeka-based publishing company, said the city has fallen behind on the amount of indoor recreation space.
“There isn’t any doubt that we have a chronic shortage of gym space,” Chestnut said.
But he stopped short of declaring the proposed regional recreation center a good deal for the city. And he said a future City Commission likely won’t be asked to make that decision.
“I think it will be the job of a future City Commission to abide by the terms of the agreements that are being crafted now,” Chestnut said. “But I don’t have a lot of information on those agreements.”
Chestnut said he has been studying the city’s sales tax fund, which is proposed to be the funding source for the 20-year debt that will be issued for the recreation center.
“I think everybody acknowledges it will be tight,” Chestnut said. “It will require a lot of resources out of that fund, particularly for the years between now and 2016.”
On the proposed bidding process, Chestnut said he would like to know more details, but he said he does understand why KU Endowment officials would want to use a bidding process more typical of what the association normally uses.
“When you are working with a partner, you have to work with them on all the terms of a project, and sometimes you have to blend processes,” Chestnut said. “I think that is what is happening here.”
Chestnut said he thought it was appropriate for the project to move forward without a citywide vote. He said the project is the type of project discussed with voters in 1994, and he noted the sales tax was designed to remain in effect for perpetuity.
“Philosophically, this is one of the reasons I believe in sunsetting sales taxes,” Chestnut said. “But they didn’t sunset this sales tax.”
Criqui, an executive with Lawrence’s Trinity In-Home Care, believes the city does need more indoor recreation space.
“Do we need a regional recreation center, though?” Criqui asked. “That’s is hard to gauge. It has not been so transparent whether there is a need for that.”
Criqui said he has concerns the city seems to be relying heavily on the results of a 1994 sales tax election that authorized spending on recreation projects in the community. That’s the proposed funding source for the recreation center.
But legally, that 1994 vote also allowed the sales tax dollars to be used on other governmental projects, and he said he’s uncertain whether the community has had a true discussion about how to spend the sales tax money.
“I think there is an interesting conversation about priorities to be had,” Criqui said. “I think we are basing this off of priorities from a 1994 vote. Do we really need to spend all of this completely on the recreation facility?”
Criqui also is concerned about the proposed bidding process.
“I don’t think many people are in favor of that, including myself,” Criqui said. “Transparency is what we expect from a public process, and I’m not sure we have had enough of that yet.”
On the issue of a citywide vote, Criqui said he’s not yet ready to call for one. He said he would support a vote if citizens started a significant petition drive calling for a vote.
“If a group gathered 3,000 signatures or something like that, it would tell me that there is some concern out there,” Criqui said. “But I haven’t heard of anyone who has done that yet.”
Farmer, the executive director of the Lawrence food bank Just Food, said he thinks most community members support the general idea of a regional recreation center.
“What I’m hearing from most people is they aren’t as upset about the project as they are about the process,” Farmer said.
Farmer said he can see the benefits of a regional center that could draw youth tournaments and other sporting events that would attract visitors to town.
“Our community is incredible,” Farmer said. “The question I’ve been asking other people is why wouldn’t we want to share that with citizens of other communities?”
On the bidding process, Farmer said he can understand how KU Endowment is seeking a modified bidding process.
“Regardless of how it is done, it needs to be transparent to the citizens,” Farmer said. “Ultimately, if the city was building this on its own, it would have a different process. But because KU Endowment is propelling this forward, they have the ability to choose the contractor they want. This really will boil down to how open everyone is with each other.”
Farmer said he can see both sides of the issue on calling for a citywide vote on the project.
“But I think most of the objection boils down to process, and that is a tough question to put to a vote,” Farmer said.
Hays, chief litigation counsel for the Kansas Board of Healing Arts in Topeka, thinks most people do want a new recreation center in Lawrence. He’s not sure they want a 181,000-square-foot center, though.
“Can the city afford this, and is that what the citizens want?" Hays asked. “An early ’90s tax vote doesn’t really give a clear picture of what the people want today.”
Hays said he wants more details to emerge about the proposed bidding process and the reasons behind it. He noted the entire project is seeking a tax abatement from City Hall because leaders argue the Rock Chalk Park essentially will operate like a government-owned property.
“If this is going to be treated like a government project, then the transparency needs to be there,” Hays said.
Hays said he is in support of putting the project to a citywide vote.
“The reason I’m running is because I want to give the voice to the people,” Hays said. “To rely upon an early ’90s vote as the reason to move forward on a very large project seems problematic.”
Hays said he’s not sure the project would win voter approval.
“I think it is an open question,” Hays said. “When I talk to people about it, they have a lot of questions.”
Riordan, a Lawrence pediatrician, said there is “no doubt” in his mind that Lawrence needs more indoor exercise space.
“I see children come into the office everyday who are too heavy,” Riordan said. “I hear from parents about lack of gym space and how their children only have six games in a season.”
Riordan said he sees the benefits of having a large facility that is adjacent to other KU sports facilities.
“I think this will be a destination,” Riordan said. “People love coming to Lawrence. I’ve talked to too many people who are going out of town for facilities like this. Lawrence has everything else; it just needs something like this.”
Riordan said the $25 million price tag deserves close study, but he believes it has the potential to be a good investment for the community.
“Sometimes there is a unique opportunity to do something that benefits a lot of people,” Riordan said. “If you have foresight and the analysis says it makes sense, you should do it.”
On the bidding process, Riordan said he is becoming more comfortable with the proposal as he learns more. He said the fact KU Endowment will invite bids from at least two other competent builders helps. So too does the city’s plans to hire its own construction monitor who will inspect the building process and report back to the city.
Riordan also said as more details emerge about the project, he is comfortable with the project moving forward without a citywide vote because he is confident city commissioners are thoroughly studying the issue.
Rost, an attorney for a Topeka insurance company, said he has multiple concerns with the proposed project.
He said it is troubling the city has approved public incentives for at least two hotel projects — The Oread and the proposed Marriott in downtown Lawrence — in recent years, and now the city is being asked to build a regional recreation center that will help fill hotel rooms.
“It looks like one hand is shaking the other,” Rost said. “If the real goal is to provide recreation services to people who live here, I think smaller and more centrally located makes more sense. If they are trying to bring in tourism and big events, I get that, but I think you have to do a better job of showing how that is going to work.”
Rost also said he has heard “no good explanation” why the city shouldn’t follow its long-standing bid policy, and he is concerned about how information on the project has emerged in the last few months.
“All this information is just coming out in dribbles,” Rost said. “It seems like they feel like they are going to get this through anyway, so why waste time explaining it.”
He also said he is concerned that the city hasn’t put the project to a citywide vote. He believes the decision to forgo an election is part of a strategy to ask voters for a tax increase to fund core services — such as the infrastructure sales tax — while using existing tax dollars to fund projects that would fare questionably at the ballot box.
“If you are going to do this, you should have a tax increase associated with it, and then you should go the voters and ask for their approval,” Rost said.
Soden, the owner of a Lawrence pet care business, said she thinks the city is moving forward with a very large project without sufficient community buy-in.
“There still isn’t really citywide, community buy-in on this idea of a regional recreation center,” Soden said. “There already is buy-in on the idea of a neighborhood recreation center. I think everyone really likes that idea.”
Soden, though, said she is supportive of the KU portion of Rock Chalk Park and thinks those facilities will be a “huge boon for the community.”
Soden said the proposed bidding process for the facility is drawing major concern from many of the people she’s talking to.
“To me, that’s the main negative of the project,” Soden said. “It is what makes the project look fishy, and it is why some people are walking around calling it a backroom deal.”
Soden also said she is concerned the city hasn’t done enough analysis to determine if the recreation center really can attract as many tournaments and usage fees as the city is projecting.
“There is a risk there,” she said.
She said the city also is taking a risk by not putting the project to a citywide vote.
“I understand why the city doesn’t want to have a vote, but they need to have a vote,” Soden said. “For the next 20 years, there will be people pointing to that project as the root of all evil at City Hall because they didn’t vote on it.”