Thursday, June 07, 2012

How do we select a sports complex in Northwest Lawrence?

Deciding on a Sports Complex in Northwest Lawrence

The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Advisory Board held a public session to exchange ideas about the proposed sports complex.  Here a a couple of recommendations on how to proceed.

Compared to what?

Too much of the discussion last evening cast the decision the City Commission will make on the sports complex as a choice between the proposed 50 acre sports complex at the SLT versus doing nothing.  This is an overly stark and unfair characterization of the choices.  What the taxpayers and the City Commission need is a better representation of the choices.

A more correct representation of the choices would be:

1.        A 50 acre, 8 basketball/volleyball court complex in partnership with the KU Athletic Association with a soccer field and a track field.  To adopt this option means to give the developer permission to build a retail complex of about 200,000 square feet in exchange for a land donation of 50 acres, much of which was intended to be undeveloped as a buffer for property owners to the north.  This alternative requires a large investment in infrastructure, but it has the potential to attract tournaments and events to Lawrence.

2.       A 35 acre, 4 (or maybe more) basketball/volleyball court complex built to the west of Free State High School permitting the complex to be used in conjunction with the facilities at the school.  The zoning and preliminary plans for this complex are available.  This alternative does not involve increasing the retail stock, which is now overbuilt.  This alternative does not require as much new infrastructure as the alternative west of the SLT. This Overland Drive alternative involves a partnership between the City and USD 497 rather than a partnership with KUAA.  This alternative also has the potential to attract tournaments and events to Lawrence.

Recommendation:  As you move forward with analysis of a sport complex in Northwest Lawrence, please provide a comparison between these two alternatives so that the decision makers are making informed choice over two options.

Where is the Market Analysis?

I have yet to hear of any professional market analysis conducted to guide the decision makers. 

The presentation on the Frisco, Texas complex was interesting, but potentially misleading.  Frisco is bigger, richer city that sits within a much, much larger metroplex.  We are Lawrence; we need to guide the taxpayers into an investment that can be sustained by a city of our size and ability to pull in outsiders.  Knowing the scale of sustainable investment takes skill.  This skill has in short supply in Lawrence, and we are paying the price.  The Riverfront Mall was a failure, and the taxpayers continue to pay the price of the failed project and its parking garage.  The Downtown 2000 project was a failure, and the taxpayers continue to pay the price of the failed project and its parking garage.  These mistakes were made because the City moved forward with projects that were inadequately researched.

I had occasion to be in Gainesville, Florida last week.  Takeaway the alligators and the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, and Gainesville is much like Lawrence.  I picked up the local newspaper and read a front page investigative report on the disappointing performance of the City’s investment in a new sports complex.  The project is relatively new and construction delays occurred, but the sports complex had not attracted the tournaments projected for it.  This complex may recover and perform well in the future, but the experience of Gainesville is instructive.  It teaches us to be realistic about our capacity to attract tournaments.

It is fine to dream big, but when we invest, we should make sure that we invest wisely.  If we invest too big, hoping to realize our dreams, we may lose big.  If we invest based upon realistic expectations, we may have a better chance of realizing sustainable return on our investment.  We do not want an investigative article in a future issue of the Lawrence Journal World to report on the disappointing performance of the new sports complex to attract visitors, straddling the taxpayers with another poorly performing investment.

Recommendation:  Before we go much further, Lawrence needs to engage some expertise that will guide the city in terms of projecting a realistic level of demand for tournaments and its associated hotel, restaurant and retail spending so as to guide the choice of the scale of a sports complex.

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