Lawrence City Commissioner Bob Schumm has become the political face of Rock Chalk Park.
He was mayor during much of its planning stages, and was involved in many of the negotiations that formed the complex public-private partnership that eventually came under scrutiny when the city ended up paying for about $12 million worth of infrastructure that was built without going through the city’s bid process.
The project, while attracting large numbers of users, also has sparked a city audit that is examining whether proper accounting and cost controls were used. Given that, some may think Schumm’s political face would be a bit pained these days.
Address: 1720 St. Andrews Drive
Occupation: Self-employed and retired downtown restaurant owner
Education: Degree in journalism from Kansas University
Family: Wife, Sandra, four grown children and six grandchildren
Not at all. Schumm said the Rock Chalk Park project is just one example of many that has made his latest four-year term on the City Commission one of the better ones on record.
“I think we have had a record number of accomplishments over the last four years,” Schumm said.
The commission has presided over a bit of a building boom in the city, fueled by a mix of public and private projects. Schumm points to the expanded library, a new downtown hotel, a new downtown apartment building, a new community theater on the west side of town, a new homeless shelter on the east side of town, redevelopment of the former Farmland Industries site into a business park, an expansion of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU’s campus, and several other projects.
In addition, the commission has started two major new programs: a rental licensing and inspection program, and a residential curbside recycling program. Schumm thinks it all will add up to a time period that Lawrence residents eventually will look upon fondly.
“I think it is going to be a time period that we are very proud of,” Schumm said. “We’re going to see the dividends with more visitors to Lawrence, with more sales tax dollars to Lawrence, but I think the biggest thing is we’re just going to have a real sense of pride about what we did. We’ll be able to say we’re leaders, not followers.”
Rock Chalk lesson
That is not to say that Schumm believes the Rock Chalk Park process has been perfect. He said it is now clear that many residents are uncomfortable with the no-bid element of the public-private partnership that constructed the northwest Lawrence sports complex. Schumm now says he won’t support any other no-bid projects during his time on the commission.
“I still believe that we had proper controls, but it was not an easy process for the public to understand,” Schumm said.
Schumm acknowledged that the project has created some mistrust toward the commission. But Schumm said the perception that the commission was trying to create a sweetheart deal for a private developer isn’t accurate.
“I assure you that everyone worked in the best interest of the city,” Schumm said. “It is difficult to sit and listen to people say you acted improperly in terms of ethics. I was just trying to get the best project we could in the best location, and get it done at a price we could afford.”
Navigating through choppy waters at City Hall is nothing new to Schumm. He served on the commission from 1979 to 1981 and from 1987 to 1993. His most recent term began in 2011. His term in the late ‘80s and early ’90s was during one of the community’s more contentious periods. The city was deeply divided over whether a shopping mall should be built in southern Lawrence. Schumm, a longtime business and property owner in downtown, fought against the mall project. The project eventually was defeated, but not before a lot of heated debates.
“I would be out in public at the grocery store or wherever, and it pretty much was a guarantee that somebody was going to stop you, and it usually wouldn’t end up being a pleasant conversation,” Schumm said.
Being a city commissioner during this time has been “wonderful” compared with those days, he said. Schumm said he thinks he’s probably a “kinder, gentler, slower to react and less of a hip shooter” today than he was in previous terms on the commission. But he said the time period still provides good lessons for today. Keeping downtown Lawrence healthy is still a top priority, and he continues to remember a lesson from the days when the mall issue had the town so divided.
“You have a conflict and you work through it, but you have to remember you are not going to please everybody,” Schumm said.
Schumm said the November defeat of a sales tax election to fund a police headquarters is one of the reasons he decided to seek another term on the commission. He said he wants to see a solution found for police facilities. Discussing how the project could be funded without a tax increase probably should be the next step, he said. That could involve building the project in phases, and delaying some other projects on the capital improvement plan. He said creating a citizen advisory board to fully study the needs of the police department also is likely needed.
“Lawrence wants to be involved in a project from the ground up,” Schumm said. “We missed that step.”
On other issues, Schumm said:
• He strongly supports the idea of rebuilding portions of Ninth Street to become an arts corridor. He said he envisions the street improvements helping create a linear park atmosphere, “not a destination for condominiums, office buildings and that sort of thing.”
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