Concrete work begins on Rock Chalk Park rec center; city hopes Bill Self event will open center next year
I'm not sure that it is ready yet for a pick-up basketball game with my buddies, but the city's recreation center at Rock Chalk Park is starting to look a bit more like a recreation center.
Parks and Recreation officials report that the first concrete for the 181,000-square-foot recreation center was poured on Saturday, and walls for the building may start going up by the end of next week. Once that process begins, the building will start to take shape quickly because officials estimate the pre-fabricated walls only will take about eight weeks to install.
"The hope is to get this thing under cover before the weather turns bad," said Ernie Shaw, leader of the city's parks and recreation department.
Shaw said the official timeline for the facility is still July of 2014, but contractors are holding out hope that the facility will be open about two months before that. An early opening would give the city a chance to open the center with a bang. Shaw said the city would like for the first event hosted at the facility to be Kansas University coach Bill Self's youth basketball camps, which normally take place in June. That event immediately would introduce the facility to hundreds of area kids and their families.
But Shaw stressed that even during a large event like that, a portion of the facility would remain open to the public for free gym play, fitness room use and other similar activities.
"We will always have a portion of the facility open to the public," Shaw said. "That's a requirement that will never go away with any event."
The nearly $23 million project — that price includes related infrastructure in addition to the center itself — certainly is drawing attention from those in the sports world. Parks and recreation officials said 15 weekends through the end of 2015 already have been spoken for. When the center is up and fully operational, the city hopes to have about 30 weekends a year occupied by tournaments or some other sort of event that generates visitor spending in the community.
The city hopes to be a player for national and regional tournaments as well. But Shaw said the city hasn't yet finalized its structure for how it will compete for those tournaments. He said the city understands it will take a marketing effort to draw those events to Lawrence, but he said discussions are still underway about whether a city employee would be in charge of those marketing efforts, whether the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau would lead the efforts, or whether the city would seek to contract with an outside firm for assistance.
Coming up with a plan will be important because competition in the region is likely to be significant. All signs out of Wichita point to a major youth fieldhouse project that we previously reported on coming to fruition. According to reports from Wichita media, the Wichita City Council earlier this week approved the final development agreement with a private company to build an approximately 60,000 square foot fieldhouse that will have 12 gyms in it. Unlike the Lawrence project, it is receiving special STAR bond financing form the state, which is expected to help developers build a major hotel and retail center around the fieldhouse. As we have reported, there also are several competitors in the Kansas City area.
The Lawrence project — which will have eight full-court gyms, an indoor turf field, fitness center and other amenities — is adjacent to land zoned for commercial development, but thus far plans for hotels, restaurants and retailers have not yet been filed at City Hall. There also are large amounts of property for sale near the intersection, but in checking with commercial real estate agents, they don't report the area heating up with interest yet.
But that may change as the sports complex continues to come out of the ground. In addition to the recreation center, work is underway on Rock Chalk Park, which will have a track and field stadium, soccer and softball facilities owned by a group led by Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel. Those facilities will be leased to Kansas University. The first event is expected to be the KU Relays in April.
Another part of the development to keep an eye on is whether the city decides to pursue any naming rights for the facility. What I've heard is that the idea thus far isn't to offer an overarching naming rights opportunity for the entire center, but rather to offer rights for portions of the facility, such as individual courts or rooms. But all that is subject to change. The city is having its legal staff research what is permissible while ensuring that the facility maintains its tax-exempt status.
In the meantime, I think the city's top priority with the project is making sure the facility gets built on time. It appears on track, but if that changes, I can probably get them some help. I'll call up my pick-up basketball buddies. They have a lot of experience at throwing up bricks at a recreation center.
In other news related to parks and recreation:
• The city is seeking a $400,000 grant to build a trail from the Rock Chalk Park site near Sixth Street and the SLT to Queens Road. The trail — which would travel along an existing city utility easement — would tie into the system of trails that would be built on the approximately 140-acres that will be a part of the complex. Taking the trail over to Queens Road would allow the city to have a 10k trail in the area. City officials, though, concede the grant is far from a sure thing. It is an outdoors grant that traditionally has been used to fund improvements in state parks. The trail issue, though, will be one to watch. The city has plans for a 5K trail on the site, but it is unclear whether the project budget of $22.5 has enough money for the trails.
• The city has received a $20,000 grant to install new playground equipment near the East Lawrence Recreation Center. The grant requires the city to provide $20,000 in matching funds for the equipment, and to gather a team of community members to help install the equipment.