The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday deferred plans to join forces with a local soccer club to build artificial turf fields in town over concerns that the club wanted some exclusivity built into the agreement.
Sporting Kaw Valley made a pitch to the city about debt financing two turf fields at the Youth Sports Complex to help Lawrence kids stay competitive with those from other cities in the region.
Essentially, the city would front the cost of about $1.4 million for construction through general obligation bonds, and SKV would repay 97% of the cost over the next decade. The commission in October voiced general approval for the project but did not take formal action.
City staff was hung up on SKV’s request to include this language in the agreement: “During the term of this Agreement, the City agrees that it will not offer Parks & Recreation youth soccer-related programs, or permit other youth soccer-related activities by third party user groups, that conflict directly with the programming of the Applicant at YSC.”
The city generally doesn’t grant exclusive rights for use of public property, according to a memo in the agenda. Granting a 10-year agreement for the property’s use might bind future commissions from making decisions based on present factors, the memo says.
Marcus Dudley, executive director of SKV, said the goal of that statement was to ensure that the club could fulfill its financial commitment to the city and avoid threats to its revenue stream from other organizations. Some of SKV’s board members thought exclusivity was an important condition, and he said it had been included in the group’s initial request to the city.
If the city tried to move the agreement forward without the exclusivity language, “I think the board would look at this as wasting money on a project we could have spent on something else and controlled from the beginning,” Dudley said.
Soccer space is limited in Lawrence, city staff pointed out. Dudley said SKV teams would shift to use the new turf fields, which would free up the grass fields. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said voting in favor of the project, even with the exclusivity agreement against other youth leagues, would actually open fields up to adult soccer leagues.
Dudley also said the agreement wouldn’t bar youth teams from renting the fields for practices or games, but SKV wanted to avoid other camps or leagues, which could be competitors, from using the space.
Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said his sons had played with SKV, and he has “nothing but great feelings” for the program and he wanted to find a path forward. But among issues with the agreement was where the city could draw the line on what was a practice versus a camp, and a game versus a league, if it were to agree to the exclusivity language.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen cautioned against this commission locking future commissions into such agreements, recalling Sports Pavilion Lawrence. When that facility was built, the city promised the community that even when tournaments were held there, one court would always be open for public play. She said after she was elected, that last court space was needed for tournaments, and the commission had to make the decision to break that promise.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now, 10 years from now,” she said.
Construction company Mammoth, which has done preliminary design work for the project, believed turf prices would go up after Jan. 1, which is why city staff wanted to get the agreement approved before the end of the year. It was unclear from Tuesday’s discussion what the total increase would be, or what it would mean for the project’s overall cost or feasibility.
One public commenter, Michael Almon, said his son played soccer and he appreciated the need for Lawrence to have facilities that are conducive to excellence. However, he said he was concerned that no one had discussed the carbon cost of artificial turf. Over time, the fossil fuel-derived plastics of the field would wear down, and particles would wash into the Wakarusa River, he said.
Newly elected Commissioners Amber Sellers and Bart Littlejohn also voiced concerns about the exclusivity language. Littlejohn said he believed there was a path forward for the project, but he didn’t think they’d get there Tuesday night.
After about two hours of discussion, the commission voted 5-0 to defer the project with hopes that city staff and SKV could come to an agreement and bring the project back in 2022.