City approves development agreement, tax abatement for $25M Rock Chalk Park recreation center

The proposed site plan for the Rock Chalk Park Sports Complex in northwest Lawrence.

Lawrence city commissioners gave final approval Tuesday night to a development agreement that allows the $25 million Rock Chalk recreation center project to move forward.

They also approved an ordinance that will give the larger Rock Chalk Park project, which includes privately owned athletic facilities to be used by Kansas University, a 100 percent property tax abatement for the next 10 years.

The approval came on a pair of 4-1 votes, with only city commissioner Mike Amyx dissenting.

The commission gave approval to the property tax abatement even though its key advisory board on economic development incentives failed to provide a positive recommendation for the requested abatement at an earlier meeting Tuesday.

The commissioners said they approved the project — which would include track and field, soccer and softball stadiums for Kansas University — because they felt it was important to the overall health of the community.

“I think there is a potential for the university, our largest employer, to be damaged by not moving forward with this project,” Commissioner Mike Dever said.

Tuesday’s vote puts the recreation center project — a 181,000-square-foot building with eight gyms and other amenities — on track to be put out for construction bids in late March and to have bids accepted in mid-April, although it will be up to the next City Commission to approve those bids after the April 2 election.

Tuesday night’s vote also is one of the last needed for Kansas University and its private partner — Thomas Fritzel’s Bliss Sports — to begin construction on the stadium portion of the project. Both the Rock Chalk Park project and the recreation center are planned for property just north and east of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange.

The stadium projects will receive a 100 percent, 10-year tax abatement that is expected to waive about $17 million worth of property taxes over the time period.

But the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee on Tuesday afternoon could not reach an agreement on whether to recommend approval of the tax abatements. The committee deadlocked 3-3 on whether to recommend the tax abatement.

Rob Chestnut, who is a member of the Public Incentives Review Committee and a current candidate for the City Commission, raised several concerns about whether the city’s financial analysis of the project was accurate.

City commissioners, however, said it was difficult to create a traditional financial analysis for the project because it is not driven by the number of jobs it will directly create but rather by the number of visitors it may bring to the community and other indirect benefits.

Mayor Bob Schumm and Dever — who have served as the lead negotiators for the city — also both expressed concern that if the city didn’t support the Rock Chalk Park project, KU may consider building the proposed sports facilities outside of Lawrence.

“They easily could leave the community,” Schumm said. “There are other people who would love to have this, and one of them is just down the road in Wyandotte County.”

Amyx, who is up for reelection April 2 and received the highest number of votes in last week’s primary, was the lone commissioner to vote against both the incentives request and the development agreement between the city and RCP LLC — an entity of KU Endowment Association — and Fritzel’s Bliss Sports.

Amyx said he believed the Rock Chalk Park project deserved more scrutiny based on the the strong private element to the development through Bliss Sports’ ownership of the facilities. Bliss will lease the facilities to KU.

KU and Bliss officials have said they hope to begin construction on the Rock Chalk Park portion of the project soon. Plans call for the 2014 Kansas Relays to be held at the new track and field stadium.