The starter’s pistol now has sounded on the Rock Chalk Park project.
Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday gave approval to a pair of rezoning requests and a special use permit that will allow Kansas University and its private partners to move ahead with plans for a new track and field stadium, soccer field, softball stadium and other amenities on about 90 acres just north of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Now, the race is on to have the project ready to host the Kansas Relays in 2014.
“That is definitely our goal,” said Jim Marchiony, an associate athletic director for KU. “We’re very excited. This is an exciting time for both Kansas Athletics and the city of Lawrence. This will provide facilities for KU that can compete with facilities across the country.”
Tuesday’s votes, however, do not resolve all issues with the project. The votes do not yet commit the city to build a $25 million recreation center in the park. Commissioners won’t vote on that portion of the project until mid-February, when development agreements are finalized among KU entities, the city, and a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, which will provide financing and construction services for the KU-related facilities.
But commissioners generally were enthusiastic about the project. The rezoning requests — which included 90 acres for the proposed Rock Chalk Park and another 20 acres that could be developed in the future — were approved unanimously. The special use permit was approved on a 4-1 vote, with City Commissioner Mike Amyx opposed. The special use permit plans showed the city’s proposed recreation center at 181,000 square feet with eight gyms and other amenities. Amyx has said he thinks that the city’s facility needs to be significantly smaller, and perhaps at another location.
Commissioners heard from several members of the public who urged the city to approve the project. The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Lawrence-based Kansas Licensed Beverage Association — which represents bars and restaurants — issued formal endorsements of the projects.
A few parents of youth athletes also threw their support behind the project.
“Let’s take Lawrence recreation from good to great,” said Heidi Simon, who told commissioners she had a son practicing basketball in Tonganoxie on Tuesday evening because there wasn’t enough practice space in Lawrence. “This project is big and it is bold. There is always risk when you do something great, but there is great reward in what we’re trying to do here.”
Commissioners also heard from people who questioned the project. Both the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County and the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods expressed concerns about the project.
Some of those concerns may come up again in February when city commissioners consider agreements between KU entities and Fritzel’s Bliss Sports.
As it's currently proposed, Fritzel’s company is the presumed contractor for the KU-related facilities — which his company will own for the first 30 years and lease back to the university, which KU officials contend will save KU millions of dollars compared to financing the project itself.
It also is proposed, though, that the city’s $25 million recreation center would go through a bidding process that deviates from the city’s standard bidding policy. Under the proposal, the bidding could be limited to three companies, and Fritzel’s firm would have the chance to match the low bid on the project.
Commissioners did not get into any of those details at Tuesday’s meeting, but rather said they will be addressed in the agreements they will consider in February.
“All those agreements will be open and available to the public before we take any action on them,” Mayor Bob Schumm said.
On Tuesday, though, the focus was on the KU portion of the project clearing a major hurdle. Marchiony said it is hoped construction could begin in either February or March.
He said the Rock Chalk Project will allow the university to work on a plan to remove the track from Memorial Stadium, which would allow for upgrades to the football amenities offered in the stadium. But Marchiony said no timeline or specific plans have been developed for that project.
“But now that this piece of the puzzle seems to be on the way to being solved, we’ll be able to focus on that more,” he said.