The question that City Commissioner Mike Amyx raised after bids for the city’s new recreation center were opened on Wednesday should be of concern to all Lawrence taxpayers: “I think the question is out there, though, how much less would we have paid if we bid it all?”
In a surprising development, the low bid for the recreation center that will be part of the Rock Chalk Park development in northwest Lawrence came in at $10.5 million, just under half of the city’s estimate of $18.5 million to $20.7 million.
That’s good news, but not as good as it could be considering the city’s agreement to spend up to $25 million to fund the recreation center plus infrastructure work that will serve the entire complex, including track, soccer and softball facilities that will be owned by developer Thomas Fritzel’s company and leased to Kansas University. The city agreed to a no-bid contract for the infrastructure work, which will be completed by Fritzel’s company.
If the recreation center bids had come in close to estimates, the city would have been committed to paying about half of the $8.3 million estimated cost of the infrastructure work. However, the low construction bids for the rec center probably mean the city will pay all of the infrastructure costs. That amount could, indeed, be $8.3 million or it could be less. Unfortunately, it also could be much more as long as the combined cost of the rec center and the infrastructure doesn’t exceed $25 million. It’s hard to tell at this point because even though infrastructure work has begun at the site, Fritzel has been unable to provide solid figures on the cost of that work.
Commissioner Bob Schumm said it’s fine with him that the city will end up paying all the infrastructure cost because “that helps support KU’s mission out there.” Is that really the case? Although KU will be a primary — paying — customer for Rock Chalk Park, the athletic facilities will be owned by Fritzel and his Bliss Sports foundation. With that in mind, it seems that the city’s investment in infrastructure primarily will benefit Fritzel entities, not KU.
Gene Fritzel Construction, of which Thomas Fritzel is an executive, submitted the low bid for the recreation center. A suspicious mind might wonder whether the Fritzel firm was low-balling the rec center contract so the city would have more money to spend on infrastructure, but the fact that the highest of eight other bids was for $13.577 million indicates that, for whatever reason, the city’s cost estimates once again vastly missed the mark.
If the city had insisted on a traditional bidding process, who knows how low a hungry contractor would have gone on the infrastructure part of this project? If the city had been a tougher negotiator and capped its infrastructure cost at half or even slightly more than half of the total cost, the city might have saved $5 million or $8 million on the combined rec center and infrastructure project.
That’s a lot of taxpayer money. Rock Chalk Park may end up being a great asset for Lawrence and KU, but taxpayers continue to have real reasons to question the unconventional financial arrangement city officials were willing to accept with the developer of this project.