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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.


Pepe 5 years, 5 months ago

This is one of the worst ideas I have heard. If they want to pursue it privately, then more power to them, but there is no way the city should be involved in this.

I saw that Wichita is planning on a similar concept, although on a much larger scale (about $450 million worth). Assuming Wichita proceeds as planned, the Lawrence facility would immediately look rinky-dink in comparison. It is hard to imagine that this will be the regional draw that they want when Wichita will apparently have a much nicer facility that will open at roughly the same time.

Again, if private industry wants to build this, then good luck to them but the city should not touch this thing with a 10 foot pole.

somebodynew 5 years, 5 months ago

Isn't it amazing that the details can be withheld (or very slowly trickled out), but it is going to take ALL the city's money up front to get this done. And yet, Amyx seems to be the ONLY commissioner who is the least bit leery of this.???

The more I hear about this the more 'sketchy' the details are sounding. The one thing for certain is that Fritzell will make a PILE of money off this as it goes through. Oh, and probably the second thing for certain is that neighbors are going to get s....**&&&d.

WilburM 5 years, 5 months ago

For all the controversies over development in Lawrence, for the most part the conflicts have been public and roughly transparent. This entire project is almost a total exception to this. You have the KU Athletic Corporation, never noted for its openness, coupled with Fritzell (highly secretive), and a Commission that seems to have forgotten (save the reliable Mike Amyx) to whom they are ultimately responsible.

This may end up being a good idea, but the process here is undemocratic and purposefully deceptive. There's way, way too much "trust me" -- and this report simply adds one more (large) layer to the levels of of hazy policy-making. "Bliss" indeed.

KiferGhost 5 years, 5 months ago

How can we expect the city commission to be aware of anything Fritzel is pulling when so far he has gotten away with the unexpected cell phone tower installation on the eyesore on the hill and cutting a house to pieces and not putting humpty dumpty back together again as expected. What surprises lie ahead when bought and paid for commissioners are running the show?

flyin_squirrel 5 years, 5 months ago

Only a possibility here, but could they be structuring it this way so KU is not the owner of the facility. If KU owns the facility, I don't think they would be able to host Junior National Track events, or other AAU and High School events. I know the Mega Rec Center would not be a problem because KU has no involvement in that, but the Track Stadium, Soccer Stadium and Softball Stadium couldn't host those types of events if KU owns it.

mdlund0 5 years, 5 months ago

It would certainly be a devious way of circumventing NCAA regulations. A case study in obeying the letter but not the spirit of the law.

KiferGhost 5 years, 5 months ago

Why is that important to the citizens of Lawrence? That sounds like a KUAC problem and if they have private funds and a guy who thinks he owns the town let them spend their money on their golden opportunity but keep the city out of it.

mdlund0 5 years, 5 months ago

I thought that we originally just wanted a community gym/rec center for northwest Lawrence... how did all this happen?

chocolateplease 5 years, 5 months ago

It sounds like a complex plan between KU and Fritzel, with the City as an expected financial backer. Except they (KU & Fritzel) omit the City from the specific details of their grand plan until and only as they see fit. I don't actually blame them from a business point of view, but does the City have a grip?

I think the City should realize (do they?) that they are not a partner in this deal at all; they are just the money bags and rubber stamper of zoning requests. KU and Fritzel have obviously been negotiating to work out a finely detailed road map benefiting them both, and the City is just a puzzle piece to help them get it done. The City needs to get it's game on.

Let's hear about the tax implications of how they want to structure this. What if the high schools need a place to play on the same day that a profitable event is proposed? If this is a profit venue AND a public, recreational facility, who will decide which takes priority and when? There are so many questions. Is it reasonable to keep approving things step by step without knowing the grand plan?

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