Recreation Center Case Study
In 1993 a request came to the city council for city participation in a non-profit venture to enhance soccer playing fields which had been developed by the non-profit corporation, Youth Sports Incorporated. This was not the first time YSI had made a request of this kind, and I raised the question of whether or not it would be useful to look comprehensively at the city's parks and recreation needs rather than dealing with these requests piecemeal. Staff recommended we hire a consultant, and after a search process, staff recommended a small company that would survey the city's needs measured against national standards; conduct several public meetings and a random sample telephone survey; and produce a master plan.


The city council adopted the master plan, and a creative funding package was initiated to finance it. I met with my primary political advisor, who had become President of the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce at lunch to discuss the possibility of proposing a sales tax to fund the master plan (Note that staff was not included). I sought their advice in large part because the school district would be asking the public to vote on bonds for a second high school, and I did not want competing tax issues on the ballot at the same time. More importantly, I knew any public vote for a tax increase would require the chamber's help.

At that meeting we decided to float the idea for the following package. If the voters approved a one cent county-wide sales tax, we could fund the parks and recreation master plan, a building that would bring our health facilities together under one roof and take care of their space needs, a much needed county jail, and a reduction in the city property tax equal to the amount the school district would need to raise their mill levy to build the second high school. In other words, if voters approved the sales tax increase and the school bonds, they could get all these facilities and not see in increase in the property tax.

In order to help citizens decide, we asked the parks and recreation consultant to put a price on the parks and recreation projects. The centerpiece was a community recreation center estimated at 5.6 million dollars. These estimates appeared in informational brochures sent to voters. It all worked; the sales tax passed 60-40 and the school bonds with a lesser margin. The city began collecting its share of the sales tax and implementing the parks and recreation master plan immediately, starting with the smaller projects and financing them with cash. Once architects actually began designing the projects and programming needs were finalized, it became clear that ALL the parks and recreation projects would cost nearly double the original estimate. It turned out that the master plan consultant was not a financial expert, and with increasing construction costs in a rapidly growing city, the ballpark estimates were out of the ballpark.

Because the initial projects were smaller, they did not generate much concern, and the new outdoor swimming pool turned out to be a big hit throughout the city, even though it opened later than promised. However, the community recreation center, the last project in the top priority list in the master plan, became the focus of a community-wide, scorching debate, virtually all of it one-sided in opposition.

Before the intense criticism, we hired architects and sports facility and programming consultants to design the center, and the city council traveled to other locations to see what other cities had done. We were presented with four options-the least expensive cost 8 million dollars; it was essentially what the consultant had in mind when proposing the "community" recreation center. The most ambitious cost 15 million. With these sobering numbers, we slowed down the whole process, worked hard to develop consensus on the council and among community interests (we thought), and after numerous meetings with the public and ourselves, we settled, unanimously, on a 13 million dollar project. The project clearly was not the same as had been envisioned originally; it was bigger, offered more, and truly was a "community" recreation center rather than a gym with a swimming pool-which the original would have been.

Several months later and after spending nearly 800,000 dollars, the project was abandoned on a 4-1 vote (yours truly the lone one) under withering criticism that the city council was disregarding the vote of the people and building a Taj Mahal. An unlikely alliance was formed between a tax conscious, elderly watchdog group, neighbors who opposed the location, and private health club owners. Despite data and financial projections showing that the sales tax could comfortably finance the larger project simply by issuing bonds for 20 rather than our customary 10 years, the trust issue proved too strong with an election coming up in four months. Arguments that a larger building would be needed to serve citizens 10, 20 and 30 years from now in this growing community fell on deaf ears.

Furthermore, vocal citizens found unattractive the argument that a larger, more comprehensive facility could help integrate the community which was growing rapidly.

It is not entirely clear how the 5.6 million dollar project grew to 13 million. But my best guess is that the initial estimate was low. In addition, staff, with its familiarity of programming needs and trends and consultants familiar with what kind of recreation facilities were popular nation-wide knew we needed much more than the 5.6 million would buy. In short, whatever we built they could program, the demand was that great, they said. The council was convinced, and to this day three of the commissioners who voted in opposition to the center believe it would have been best for the community. But they sincerely believed that going ahead with it would undermine even further community trust in government.

Questions:

John Nalbandian
University of Kansas
Spring 1997


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