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Recreation center debate causes commissioner to question 'relevance' of Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods; other notes from last night's Rock Chalk Park meeting
There will be all types of shots taken at the proposed Rock Chalk Park and the city’s $25 million recreation center. There will be bank shots, hook shots, 33-foot three-point shots, that come up three feet short, taken by my teammate who never passes the ball. You get the idea.
But at Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, the project created one other type of shot: a shot over the bow.
City Commissioner Hugh Carter delivered one to the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods. The group had issued a formal statement criticizing how the city was moving forward with the project. Specifically, it called for the commission to hold a citywide election on the issue and questioned the proposed process that will allow the $25 million recreation center to be built using a bidding process that significantly deviates from the city’s open-bidding policy.
Carter on Tuesday said that he had read that statement and wished he could give it more weight. But he said he’s no longer convinced that LAN is representative of neighborhoods across the city.
“I’m concerned about the relevance of LAN at this point,” Carter said.
Carter pointed to the group’s letter that stated the association met and unanimously voted on the group’s position. But Carter questioned what that really meant. He said if LAN was representative of neighborhoods in the city, that would suggest that the majority of people in every neighborhood in the city were against this project. He called that idea “inconceivable.”
Of course, what I think the letter meant was that every voting member of LAN who was at the meeting voted in favor of the organization’s statement expressing concern about the project. The question is how many people actually were there to vote?
I asked that question shortly after the group came up with the statement, but I don’t have a real firm answer on it. About 20 people attended the LAN meeting, but not all of them are voting members. Generally, anybody can attend a LAN meeting, but you have to be appointed by your neighborhood association as a representative to LAN before you can vote. I don’t think LAN President Laura Routh was trying to hide the vote total when I asked her about it. I just think she didn’t have her meeting notes in front of her when I contacted her. She did say, though, that it was a well-attended meeting by LAN standards.
The idea that the organization has become more of an east Lawrence/central Lawrence dominated organization isn’t a new one. But it is not often that a city commissioner calls it out as publicly as Carter did on Tuesday.
“My feeling is that LAN is becoming more of a faction and more polarizing,” said Carter, who is leaving the commission in April when his term expires. He recently was named as the new vice president of external affairs for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
It will be interesting to watch relations between LAN and City Hall in the next few months. I don’t know enough about LAN’s current membership to provide insight on its reach across the city. It has, at times, had a good reach into west Lawrence. It was pretty active in that area during the time the city was debating whether to build a new Walmart at Sixth and Wakarusa.
It wasn’t long ago that you normally could count on someone with fairly strong LAN ties being a significant candidate for a City Commission seat each election. But that trend has diminished some the last couple of elections.
Routh is a newly elected president for LAN, and that will be interesting to watch too. In the past she has frequently questioned the City Commission on several issues ranging from operations of the police department to transparency at City Hall.
Whether LAN becomes more or less of a player at City Hall remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that my basketball buddy will be looking up what a “shot over the bow” is. If there is a shot to be taken — and missed — he certainly wants to know about it.
While we’re on the subject, here are a couple of other news items and notes from the Rock Chalk Park debate last night at City Hall:
• City commissioners agreed 5-0 that they aren’t planning on putting the idea of a $25 million recreation center project to a citywide vote. Commissioners conceded they have been questioned by residents about it, but they are sticking to the position they previously have expressed.
That position is that because the project isn’t raising any new taxes a vote isn’t necessary. The city held citywide elections related to sales tax increases for the T, for public infrastructure, and most recently for a property tax increase to expand the Lawrence Public Library.
But all of those projects involved tax increases. This project will be paid for through existing revenues from a sales tax approved by voters in 1994 for recreation and other projects. Some residents, however, have argued that given the city will be adding $25 million worth of debt to its books for this project, that a vote would be appropriate.
Commissioners on Tuesday indicated they were concerned about setting a precedent that every large project had to be subject to a citywide vote. Instead, they said they believed residents still supported the idea of electing commissioners to make those types of decisions.
City Commissioner Mike Amyx went along with the statement, but he said he would support putting the issue to a vote, if a significant number of residents presented a petition seeking a vote. Details on how many people would need to sign weren’t clear.
• City Manager David Corliss did alert commissioners that they likely will see a request in the coming weeks for industrial revenue bonds related to the Rock Chalk Park project and Thomas Fritzel’s entity, Bliss Sports, that will be building and financing the facilities for KU.
The idea of an IRB for the project has come up before but hasn’t got a lot of attention because the project was still working its way through other issues. Industrial revenue bonds have to be issued by the city, but the city is not financially obligated to pay those bonds in case of a default. Private companies often seek the bonds because they provide lower financing rates and some tax advantages. For example, construction materials are exempt from sales tax, if the project is being paid for with industrial revenue bonds.
• Ernie Shaw, the leader of the city’s parks and recreation department provided a new set of numbers to city commissioners last night to try to alleviate concerns that the proposed 181,000 square-foot, eight-gym recreation center would be too large.
He said new numbers for 2012 showed that the city had 123 youth basketball teams in parks and recreation programs, with about 1,200 kids participating. In total about 500 games were played, and the department tries to provide gym space for at least one hour of practice per week for each team. Currently, the city essentially owns three gyms where it can provide those practice sessions and relies heavily on use of school district gyms to accommodate both the teams.
The department also has about 155 adult basketball teams in its program and about 200 volleyball teams, Shaw said.
“I’ve been here 40 years now, and I can tell you that we continue to fill up our facilities,” Shaw said. “It is not a stretch to think that parks and recreation, that the community, needs a facility this size.”