LJWorld.com weblogs Town Talk
News and notes from Saturday morning's forum on proposed recreation center and Rock Chalk Park
How about a special Saturday edition of Town Talk.
The citizens group Cadre Lawrence hosted a public forum on the proposed recreation center and Rock Chalk Park project for northwest Lawrence Saturday morning.
Not a whole lot of new information came out of the forum. The panel was made up entirely of supporters of the project, so it wasn’t the type of event where there was much back and forth. Members of the audience also had to submit questions on note cards, so there weren’t many opportunities for the public to voice their opinions on the project.
But here’s a quick look at a few comments made by panel participants.
• Sean Lester, senior associate athletics director for KU, made one of the more definitive statements of the day. He said KU will not be allowing any concerts to be held in the proposed 10,000-seat track and field stadium. He said the risk to the world-class track and field surfaces would just be too great.
But other speakers made it clear that there could be other non-athletic events happening in the Rock Chalk Park. City Commissioner Mike Dever said the community shouldn’t be closing doors on future opportunities when it comes to non-athletic events at the facility.
The parking lot itself — it will have more than 1,400 paved spaces — is large enough to accommodate large events on its own. Think of some of the events that have closed downtown streets in the past. The idea of street dances with adult beverages have become popular in downtown in the last few years. Whether some of those events would migrate to the new location, I’m not sure.
Also not mentioned Saturday morning is just what the mover-and-shakers of this project have in mind with a future amphitheater and an indoor arena. Neither are included in phase one of the project, but there is space mapped out for each of those uses in future phases. Both of those uses seem to indicate that there has been some thought given to the area becoming a concert venue. The information submitted to the city shows a future arena would have “3,000 seats for sporting events and an additional 800 seats for concerts.”
The project leaders seem to be skittish about talking about non-athletic events at the site, I suppose because it could increase opposition from some neighbors. (Although neighbors are few at the moment.) My sense is, however, there would be plenty of people who would be excited about the area becoming a concert venue.
Lawrence is a music town, and an ability to hold larger-scale concerts would add to the economic development impact of the facility. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the community would revolt against such an idea.
• Lester also confirmed that KU eventually will look to sell naming rights for the park. “Who ever came up with the idea of Rock Chalk Park, that is great,” Lester said. “But we would love to put someone’s name in front of that.”
KU, however, won’t have any ability to sell naming rights for the city’s recreation center. City commissioners would control that process.
• Jana Dawson, a member of the city’s parks and recreation advisory board, said it would cost the city more money to build a recreation center on property the city already owns near Wakarusa and Overland Drive in northwest Lawrence.
That statement probably needs some qualifiers. If you were to build exactly the same size of facility, there are numbers that suggest that is accurate. (Although, it is unclear how fully the city has studied its options at that site.)
But it is worth remembering that in November 2011, city commissioners expressed support for an idea that would build a five gym recreation center with a wellness center, walking track and fitness area for $12 million in public money and about $3 million in private donations.
Since that time the project has grown in both size and cost. The current proposal has eight gyms, an indoor turf area, outdoor lighted tennis courts, a gymnastics area and other features. The cost is now $25 million, plus several million dollars in interest the city will pay on the 20-year bonds it will have to issue to fund the project.
What has remained the same is the city's plans to pay for it through proceeds from an existing sales tax. The money has become available because the city is retiring debt on several other projects, including the Eagle Bend Golf Course and the Lawrence-Douglas County Community Health building. (A previous version of this article also listed the Indoor Aquatics Center. That was a mistake. That debt already has been paid off.)
City Manager David Corliss said the need to have more than five gyms could be supported by national statistics. City officials frequently quote a national statistic that indicates a city of Lawrence’s size ought to have about 18 more gyms than it does.
Corliss also said there were questions about whether the smaller facility would provide much of an economic development benefit to the city in terms of attracting tournaments to town. It should be noted, though, that when the city was discussing the idea of a five gym facility, commissioners were enthusiastic about its ability to attract tournaments to the city. Plus, the nearby New Century Fieldhouse in Johnson County is an 88,000-square-foot facility with four gyms and an indoor soccer field. Officials there have had success in attracting tournaments to the facility. We’ve previously reported that when it opened in June 2011, the project — which renovated a warehouse — had a price tag of $8.2 million plus interest costs.
• City Commissioner Mike Dever clearly has become one of the more passionate supporters of the project. He made a closing statement where he tried to give assurances to the public that the city was poised to make a good investment with the project.
“I know the vision of this facility scares some people,” Dever said. “It is a large project. But I think the city is in as good a position as it can possibly be to take on this project.”
He said it is common to read national publicity about how Lawrence has as rich a basketball history as any community in the country. Yet, he said the city hasn’t done enough to capitalize on it.
“We’re told that the history of basketball is as robust here as it is anywhere, yet we don’t even have enough courts for our kids to play and practice on,” he said. “Our goal on this project has been to measure twice and cut once. We have measured and measured and measured.
“I can tell you that the sum of the parts of this project are more valuable than the individual pieces.”
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the project in a more traditional public hearing format at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, as commissioners consider zoning issues and a special use permit for the project.