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City getting serious about a downtown ice rink; update on naming rights at Rock Chalk

Maybe by the next Winter Olympics I won't have to convert my kitchen floor into an ice rink to participate in the beautiful sport of figure skating.

As we reported in December, leaders with Lawrence Parks and Recreation had some interest in a downtown, outdoor ice skating rink. Well, the idea has gained momentum.

The department is spending about $1,200 to have the architects of the Lawrence Public Library expansion determine how the plaza area between the library and the new parking garage could be modified to accommodate a rink.

Jimmy Gibbs, one of the department's division managers, said it appears the plaza could accommodate a 60-by-80-foot rink if one of the three planned terraces is removed.

The rink, which could hold about 125 skaters at a time, would be designed to be disassembled when not in use so the plaza could be used for summer concerts and other such events.

But parks and recreation leaders also are considering artificial ice. The parks and recreation department in Grandview, Mo., operates a rink with artificial ice and the reviews apparently have been good. The product is a slick, smooth plastic like material that allows skaters to use regular ice skates.

"We could have a Christmas in July event in downtown if we wanted to," Gibbs said.

Bringing more people to downtown Lawrence, especially during the winter, is a big reason behind the ice rink idea, which has received preliminary support from City Manager David Corliss.

The idea of artificial ice may make the project more financially feasible. It is estimated that electricity for a real ice rink could cost about $5,000 a week, especially during a mild winter when temperatures are frequently above freezing.

City officials are researching the cost of an artificial rink, but they think there would be around $100,000 in upfront costs. The city would try to recoup those costs through skate rentals and by finding an area company to sponsor the rink, Gibbs said.

Parks and recreation leaders should know more in the next few weeks about the feasibility of the plan. Ultimately, city commissioners will be asked to weigh in.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep practicing. The Olympics have so inspired me, I think I'll try one of these triple sow-cow jumps I've been hearing about. What's that? It's spelled Salchow. Oh.

Boys, load those pigs back up.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Let's stay in the world of recreation and provide an update on the 181,000-square-foot recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. City officials are trying to figure out what to name that center, and it appears they are at least open to the idea of allowing a corporate sponsorship type of name for the facility.

Ernie Shaw, leader of the parks and recreation department, told me that a consulting firm has told the city that it may be able to garner $75,000 to $125,000 a year for the naming rights at the center. City commissioners haven't made a decision that they want to go in that direction — in fact, the commission hasn't publicly discussed it — but I'm told that city officials at least want to explore the idea.

Shaw said his department will recommend that the center have a sort of secondary name as well, so that if a sponsor drops out in future years that the city doesn't have to start over from a marketing and branding standpoint.

The consulting firm estimates that the city could generate another $75,000 to $125,000 a year in naming rights for certain indoor areas of the center, such as the gymnastics area, indoor track and other such areas.

It will be interesting to see if the Lawrence has the corporate base to support such sponsorships, and even more interesting to see which corporations or other organizations may want to have their name on the facility.

• Gov. Sam Brownback should expect to hear from the Lawrence City Commission soon. At the suggestion of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, the commission will send a letter to Brownback urging him to expand the state's Medicaid program under the provisions of Obamacare.

Farmer, who works with a host of low-income families as the director of Just Food, said he's frustrated the state isn't accepting the federal government's offer to pay for the vast majority of an expansion of the state's Medicaid program. Farmer said he's generally not supportive of the City Commission telling the state how to spend its money — the city does not like it when the state does that to them — but Farmer said this is different because the state is rejecting federal funding for the program.

Some state officials have expressed concern that the federal funding for the program may not always be in place, which then would leave the state with a difficult funding decision to make.

Commissioner Terry Riordan, a Lawrence physician, strongly supported Farmer's suggestion for a letter. Other commissioners also said they were fine with it. None of the commissioners, however, were real optimistic that a letter from the city of Lawrence was going to do much to change the governor's thinking.

Farmer said he thought the city should be on record as supportive of the idea nonetheless. The idea of writing a letter to the state wasn't part of last Tuesday's city commission agenda, but Farmer suggested the idea near the end of the meeting. I'll let you know if I see a copy of the letter.

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Downtown ice rink possible; city’s retail sales fall for third time in four months

Here in another couple of months, my household will be in full Winter Olympics mode. That will mean several things: Jokes about communists (the games are in Russia this year); spontaneous performances of the Olympic theme song, complete with cymbals, by my wife; and whether I like it or not, figure skating on the TV.

Perhaps in the future, though, we can get our ice skating fix locally. I've gotten wind of an ice skating idea that is percolating at Lawrence City Hall. Folks in the parks and recreation department are exploring the feasibility of a seasonal, outdoor ice rink in downtown Lawrence.

Mark Hecker, assistant director for parks and recreation, told me several areas are getting a look. They include an area near the Outdoor Aquatics Center and part of South Park. But the most intriguing location is the plaza area that will exist between the city's new parking garage and the expanded Lawrence Public Library once it's completed next year.

The idea has some momentum at City Hall, in part because City Manager David Corliss is intrigued by it. He said he's interested in finding a way to bring more people to downtown Lawrence in winter. The idea of placing a temporary rink in the plaza area has some synergies, he said, because there would be adequate parking in the adjacent garage, restrooms are available in the new garage, and nonskaters could easily find something to do in the library or make the quick walk over to Massachusetts Street.

Whether the plaza area will be big enough to accommodate a rink isn't known. The financial feasibility of all this is also a question. To be clear, city officials aren't thinking of simply flooding an area and waiting for it to freeze. They do that occasionally in a low lying area of Watson Park, but it usually is only worth the time if there is going to be three to four weeks of freezing weather.

Instead, city officials are exploring renting a portable ice rink that comes with the appropriate ice making equipment. The financial feasibility of the idea likely will involve finding a corporate sponsor, and also charging a fee for skaters. Obviously, Crown Center in Kansas City has done well for years with its rink. Even for people who don't skate, it seems to add to the area's reputation as a holiday shopping destination.

That's certainly behind some of the thinking at Lawrence City Hall.

"We like the idea of a Winter Wonderland type of concept in the downtown core," Hecker said.

It's far from a done deal, but city officials seem to be serious about exploring the concept.

If it comes to be, I know somebody who can provide the theme music.

In other news and notes from around town:

• There is something else that is slipping and sliding just a bit in Lawrence: Retail sales numbers. The latest city sales tax report shows that taxable sales in the city fell by about 7.5 percent during the most recent reporting period. Totals for the entire year are still decent, but this does mark the third month out of the last four that the city has registered a decline in taxable sales in the city.

The most recent report details the taxes the city received from the state's Department of Revenue in November, but due to a lag in reporting and processing, it really measures sales that occurred from mid-September to mid-October. So, it appears really early-bird Christmas shoppers weren't out in full force, and, let's face it, Jayhawk football fans weren't roaming the city in the numbers they used to either. I never put too much stock in one month's worth of numbers, but the 7.5 percent decline is fairly significant.

For the year, sales tax collections are up about 1.6 percent. It's worth remembering that 2012 was a strong year for retail sales locally, so the fact we're above last years totals is encouraging. But, it also is worth noting that Lawrence in 2013 is performing worse than the state as a whole when it comes to retail sales. The statewide growth rate for taxable sales is 2.6 percent so far in 2013.

Lawrence isn't alone. It has been a mixed bag for several of the larger retail communities in the state. Here's a look at some of the winners and losers:

— Dodge City: up 1.6 percent

— Emporia: up 2.5 percent

— Garden City: up 5.2 percent

— Hays: down 12.3 percent

— Hutchinson: up 3.2 percent

— Junction City: down 1.0 percent

— Kansas City: up 5.1 percent

— Leavenworth: up 4.1 percent

— Leawood: up 0.9 percent

— Lenexa: up 5.2 percent

— Manhattan: down 1.2 percent

— Olathe: up 3.4 percent

— Ottawa: up 4.5 percent

— Overland Park: up 1.8 percent

— Salina: up 1.4 percent

— Shawnee: up 3.4 percent

— Topeka: up 0.4 percent

— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent.

• It was a late night at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, so news of the commission's discussion on a pay raise for commissioners got a little bit short-changed in our coverage. As we reported, staff members were directed to create an ordinance that would bump the annual commission salary to $20,000, up from $9,000 today. The mayor would get a bump to $25,000, up from $10,000 today.

The proposal, however, is a bit different than some had envisioned. Previously, there was a thought that none of the pay increases would take effect until after a new commissioner had been elected or an existing commissioner had been re-elected. In other words, no one would be guaranteeing themselves a pay increase.

But Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm lobbied for a slightly different idea. The new proposal is that the pay increase would go into effect for all five commissioners after the April 2015 election. Three of the five seats — those held by Schumm, Riordan, and Mike Dever — are up for election in 2015. Mike Amyx and Jeremy Farmer's seats aren't up until 2017. Riordan said it wouldn't be fair for some commissioners to be making $20,000 while others are making only $9,000.

Ultimately, Dever sided with Riordan and Schumm to move the proposal forward. Amyx and Farmer abstained from the vote because they did not want to be in a position of voting for a proposal that would guarantee themselves a pay increase.

None of this is official yet. Commissioners still will have to vote on the actual ordinance that increases the pay. That vote likely will happen sometime in January. As for the concept of city commissioners getting paid more, it was widely accepted at Tuesday's meeting. Two members of the public spoke in favor of it. None spoke against it.

Although there was a city survey that showed Lawrence's proposed salaries would make Lawrence among the higher paying in the area, Riordan said he thought the survey results mainly showed that commissioners in other communities are "grossly underpaid."

Probably the most interesting item of the discussion is that one member of the public commented that if City Hall wants to do something to encourage more people to run, it should place some limits on campaign spending for City Commission races.

Commissioners didn't take any action on that idea, but Riordan said he was intrigued by it.

"That may be worth looking at, at some point," Reardon said. "That probably would affect it more than anything else."

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