Town Talk: City to have public meeting on proposed sports complex; speculation that Fritzel will get to build $25M rec center without going through city bid process; ugly sweaters coming to downtown

News and notes from around town:

• I wouldn’t be surprised if this idea to build a new city recreation center/Kansas University sports complex in northwest Lawrence soon gets messier than a pickup basketball game full of 40-year-old men. (Trust me, those get messy.)

City leaders have scheduled a public meeting from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 8 at Free State High School to provide an update on the idea of a regional recreation center that currently is proposed for about 100 acres north of the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.

The city will go over some cost estimates for the project — we’ll go over those in a moment — but I don’t think that is what will make this project messy. Instead, I think it is another hot topic at City Hall: The Varsity House project.

You surely remember that Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel is behind the Varsity House project, and that a majority of city commissioners believe he hasn’t lived up to his end of a compromise to move the old Varsity House in an appropriate way. The city is looking for a way to force Fritzel to pay some sort of restitution on the project.

Fritzel long has been a player in this idea to build a new regional recreation center. His role in the project when it was proposed for the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the SLT was pretty well understood.

But when the project moved east across the trafficway, exactly what his role will be became less clear. Details will start to come out soon, and it will be interesting to see how the general public reacts given the dust up that has occurred with the Varsity House.

Here’s what multiple sources have told me to expect Fritzel’s role to be when it comes to the regional recreation center: He’ll build the city’s $25 million recreation center, and he’ll be allowed to do so without going through the city’s normal bidding process.

That’s why this project likely will get messy. City leaders are going to have to come up with a way to explain why they are giving $25 million worth of business to a man they currently are trying to figure out how to fine because they don’t believe he upheld his end of a deal that was made with City Hall.

In addition, there are several members of the public — including a few commissioners — who still believe Fritzel did wrong on two other projects: the unexpected addition of cell towers masked as flag poles atop The Oread hotel, and the installation of large amounts of artificial turf at the former Boardwalk Apartment site, despite the fact the city’s code did not allow the use of that product.

In fairness, Fritzel, when he is in the mood to talk — which isn’t often — can provide reasons why those projects happened the way they did. His reasons hold water with some, but don’t for others.

The city likely will contend that it isn’t so much doing business with Fritzel but rather is doing business with the well-respected Kansas University Endowment Association.

Several sources have told me the deal will be structured like this:

— KU Endowment, in the beginning, will own all the land that will house the recreation center and the sports complex. Endowment will insist the project be built to certain standards to convey the proper level of quality expected by KU.

— With that in mind, KU Endowment will construct the city’s recreation center on a “build-to-suit” type of arrangement. After the project is completed to the city’s satisfaction, the city will pay KU Endowment $25 million. The city then will own the recreation center and, as it currently is proposed, the land that it sits on.

— But as part of this deal, KU Endowment gets to select the builder for the city’s recreation center. The overwhelming speculation is that Fritzel — who is a top executive at Lawrence’s Gene Fritzel Construction Co. — will be the builder for both the recreation center and the KU components that include a track and field stadium, softball stadium and other features.

So, the city very much will be doing business with a man who they are accusing of breaking faith on another multimillion-dollar construction project. Why is the city open to this? Because the city thinks it is going to get a good deal.

Remember, the city believes it will pay no more than $25 million for its recreation center and related amenities, which include lighted tennis courts, hiking paths and parking.

Well, the city now has numbers that estimate the actual value of everything the city will get for $25 million is actually $33.5 million. So it is kind of like one of those QVC-type of deals of “for this one low, low price you get all of this.” (I have found a QVC analogy is helpful in my household.) The assumption is — although it hasn’t clearly been spelled out — is that Fritzel will cover the difference either by taking less of a profit on the construction project or through some other means.

I need to find out a little bit more about where the city got its $33.5 million estimate. I assume it is from Lawrence’s Gould Evans architecture firm. But I don’t have many details about how that important number was developed.

I’ve also been told by sources that the city intends to further protect itself by having two contractors provide “mock” bids for the recreation center once it is completely designed. That is meant to give the city confidence that it truly is getting a recreation center that is worth at least $25 million. In case you are not following along, the city will pay a couple of contractors to produce bids for a project that those contractors have no chance of building. Already I can hear questions from some members of the public about whether a fake bid produces real numbers.

It all creates an interesting situation because if the city really does get $33.5 million worth of improvements for $25 million, that is quite a deal for a complex that city leaders believe will attract numerous visitors and outside dollars to the community. There would be many people in the community who would be upset if the city walked away from that type of value.

But the good old Varsity House issue is going to ensure that there are many people who question — fairly or unfairly — whether Fritzel will follow through on his end of the deal.

I’ve talked to several city commissioners about whether the Varsity House project will impact the recreation center project. They all have conceded it will make the recreation center project more politically difficult. Remember, there is a City Commission election in April. But I don’t believe there is a majority of commissioners who are ready to walk away from this deal.

I’ve been reminded that the city’s ultimate protection in the deal is that the city’s doesn’t hand over a $25 million check until it is satisfied it has gotten the project it has expected.

That is a powerful balancing force, as long as it works out that way. But if you end up in a situation where KU — the city’s largest employer — says it has upheld its end of the deal, and you have the city that says it hasn’t, talk about messy.

That’s an old man going up for a layup, blowing out his ACL, planting his face in the gym floor-type of messy.

• Hey, what says mess better than an ugly holiday sweater? (Perhaps an ugly holiday sweater with gravy on it, which is usually what happens to mine.)

Well, Downtown Lawrence better get ready for a whole host of people in ugly holiday sweaters. My understanding is that the group is working to create a 5K race for Dec. 1 that would be billed the “Ugly Sweater Run.” It promotes itself as the “ugliest 5K on the planet,” and it features runners wearing ugly holiday sweaters traversing a holiday-themed course in downtown.

My understanding is the organizers of the race somehow set up a “sledding area,” provide hot chocolate, and also have Sam Adams Winter Lager available for those of age. The event also works to generated donations for the Toys for Tots program.

I think the city is still working with event organizers on finalizing a time for the event. Dec. 1 also is the date for Downtown Lawrence’s Old Fashioned Christmas Parade, so the event will need to work around that major draw to downtown.

I think more details will be available in the next day or so, and I’ll pass them along when I get them.