Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens gave city staff and commissioners an update Tuesday on the winter weather shelter program, a local effort intended to provide temporary emergency shelter to people experiencing homelessness in harsh, low temperatures.
The program will take a “mostly church-based congregate format” with a workforce of community volunteers. It anticipates a peak demand of 200 people this winter, but with only one facility secured so far, there is currently only capacity for 40 people.
“We’ve been working on this for many months, and there continues to be complexity with the continuing pandemic,” Owens said. “That complexity and uncertainty certainly hasn’t made that planning easier, but we have prepared some options. We’re still continuing to work with community partners and continue conversations.”
Mayor Brad Finkeldei thanked Owens for the update, saying that plans for this program will likely be an “ongoing conversation” as the city continues to seek out resources and enlist the help of local churches.
“I know this is something that staff has been working hard on and community members have as well,” he said. “I think the first step is to get this out there and see who’s willing to partner with us.”
In other business, the Lawrence City Commission discussed an amendment to the city’s long-term capital improvement plan to include a $1.5 million parks project.
The project entails the installation of new turf on two Youth Sports Complex soccer fields under a partnered agreement with local soccer club Sporting Kaw Valley, which would then be primarily responsible for paying the city back with interest in a long-term plan after the city’s initial payment. It would be debt financed with an annual payment of $160,000 from Sporting Kaw Valley over the next 10 years.
The project was presented to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board at the Sept. 13 meeting and passed on an 8-0 vote, with recommendation for consideration by the city commission. If the City Commission approved, the project would continue on to consideration from the United States Corps of Engineers, the owners of the Youth Sports Complex’s underlying land.
Marcus Dudley, executive director for Sporting Kaw Valley, said an ideal timeline would put the target start date for the project in November. Although this was the first meeting where the project came before commissioners, he said conversations with Lawrence Parks and Recreation began in November of 2019 and that a partnership between the two entities would be the most mutually beneficial outcome for the project.
“(The agreement) would allow us not only to stay there and have our primary needs met, but also create the opportunity for there to be additional programming and rental space available for Lawrence Parks and Rec,” he said. “They could generate revenue off of the complex, as well as open up other grass space in the area for other user groups around the community.”
Several board directors from Sporting Kaw Valley attended the meeting and urged the commission to approve the project, saying that turf installment is a frequent ask among those in the community who use the facility and who otherwise have to travel to facilities in other nearby cities like Kansas City and Topeka to use it.
“We have exhausted every option that we can think of, and this really does meet the needs for everybody, for the city and for our clubs,” said Adam Linhos of the SKV board of directors. “This isn’t about us winning games or losing games, it’s about our children being able to compete at the same level as the Kansas City and Topeka kids. By the time they’re in high school looking for college scholarships, honestly they’re at a lower level because they can’t compete with the amount of time they get in Kansas City.”
Following the public’s chance to comment on the item, commissioners weighed concerns over equity for other capital improvement requests and a lack of community input on this project with the appeal of what the project and its “public-private” agreement would do for the community. No official motion was made to approve the project’s next steps, but Finkeldei said further steps from the project’s plan may come back before the commission as action items or consent agenda items.
Finkeldei said in his time working with local school districts that use turf fields, he’s seen maintenance costs go down as use goes up. He anticipated that the same benefits would be seen under this project, along with the added financial benefit of the cost-sharing agreement.
“I think we want to move this as quickly as we can,” he said. “Hopefully we can move this forward, and begin having that construction done for the spring.”