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Questions emerge about how much Fritzel and his foundation will control operations of KU facilities at proposed Rock Chalk Park
It is becoming a bit clearer that Lawrence may be getting more than just a publicly owned sports complex with the proposed Rock Chalk Park.
Saying it is getting a bit clearer, however, is kind of like saying the Kansas River is clearer than a tar pit. But in recent days the public has started to hear rumblings that Thomas Fritzel’s Bliss Foundation is set to play a major role in the operation of the KU facilities at Rock Chalk Park.
Tuesday night, Mayor Bob Schumm confirmed to me that it is his “understanding” that the Bliss Foundation will have a master lease over all the KU facilities at the proposed Rock Chalk Park, which would be just north of the northeast intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Schumm said he hadn’t yet seen any documents related to Bliss Foundation’s operational role in the facility, but his understanding is that the Kansas University Endowment Association will own the land, but Fritzel’s foundation will be offered a land lease on the property. Kansas University Athletics then will have an agreement with the foundation spelling out KU Athletics’ use of the facilities, which will include a 10,000-seat track and field stadium, a soccer field, softball stadium and nearly 40,000 square feet of indoor training space and an indoor softball field.
It also will include acres and acres of ground. The first phase of the Rock Chalk Park is listed at 90 acres, although 20 of those acres are scheduled to be owned by the city and won’t be subject to any lease agreement with Fritzel’s foundation.
The whole situation has at least one neighbor to the property — landowner Jack Graham — questioning how the public should expect this sports complex to be used. Specifically, will the agreements between Fritzel’s foundation and KU give Fritzel the right to host multiple events that have nothing to do with KU athletics or even athletics in general?
As we reported Tuesday, city planning staff members are highlighting that the project’s special use permit will allow for non-athletic events to be held at the complex. The report indicates the city hasn’t yet seen specific plans for what that might entail. But the report lists some examples, including music concerts, festivals, BBQ cookoffs, car shows, and BMX or Motocross events. Or think about all those runs and street dances that currently happen downtown.
The staff report even mentioned tractor pulls, but that probably isn’t the most likely of happenings. Music concerts, however, may be a different deal. We noted with interest when plans showed a 4,000-seat amphitheater for the complex. The amphitheater is no longer shown in phase one of the development, but a site on the property is still set aside for an amphitheater.
When I asked Schumm Tuesday night whether he understand the role that the Bliss Foundation would have in operating the KU facilities and potentially booking them for events, Schumm said: “I’m not certain at this time that I do.”
But city commissioners went ahead and gave round one approval for the zoning of the property on Tuesday. The city, however, still must approve the zoning ordinance on second reading, and there was some talk about delaying that vote until a bit more information emerges.
I’ll attempt to get more information today from KU Endowment and from Fritzel.
But in the meantime, think about this: The Rock Chalk Park already is designed to be a basketball magnet, with the city’s mega recreation center scheduled to have eight full court gyms. If music concerts become part of the plan, watch out. It is difficult to think of two things that Lawrence loves more than basketball and music. (There are a couple of other things I can think of, but I’m not sure they’re legal.)
This complex has been sold so far with economic development in mind, and using this as a concert venue would boost that potential. But loud outdoor music concerts come with their own set of challenges.
It will be interesting to watch, but if basketball and music become the new strategy, I’ve already got the marketing tag line: Rock Chalk and Rock ’n’ Roll.