City wants to know more on ‘fieldhouse’ plan

By Bryan Richardson

City commissioners began working through the process of studying a $54 million proposal to upgrade Manhattan’s park and recreation facilities Tuesday evening.

A work session provided the opportunity for the local group leading the effort — the so-called “Fieldhouse Group” — to present its feasibility study.

“Obviously, there’s a little bit of sticker shock with the price they came up with,” commissioner Karen McCulloh said.

Mayor John Matta said he commends the group for the work put into the proposal, but admitted it’s a lot of the commission to handle.

The commission told city staff to produce more information for discussion during the commission’s retreat Jan. 2.

The proposal includes building an indoor facility in CiCo Park; eight new turf baseball/softball fields at Anneberg Park; adding a retractable roof to City Park Pool; adding three tennis courts at City Park; and building a new park with 12 soccer/football fields east of town.

“All they’re really asking is for us to put it on the ballot in November 2014, which is a long way away,” McCulloh said.

Matta said anything is possible, but he thinks it will be difficult to make that timeline.

“Anything of this magnitude should be decided on a ballot initiative, but we need a little more time to hear from the community before we approach that,” he said.

McCulloh said the April 2015 ballot is also available if a November ballot issue might not work.

“I have no problem with putting things on ballots because it’s a good way to do things,” she said. “But if you’re going to do it, you can’t waste people’s time.”

McCulloh said the proposal represents a good starting point, but that the package in its current state probably wouldn’t pass.

She said there are savings that can be found to reduce the price.

“It was sort of like a child’s Christmas list with all the things he or she might want,” McCulloh said. “Now, the family needs to decide what it can afford.”

Matta said a number of things still needed to be considered, such as an expiring quality-of-life sales tax, donated land for the project from a currently anonymous donor and the effect on the surrounding park communities.

“I’m also very concerned about the debt ceiling,” he said, mentioning there’s about $50 million left below the city’s $300 million limit. “We need to get under the covers about that some more. We didn’t really get into that. It appears the project will take us to the top of our debt ceiling.”

The group suggests a sales tax of one-half of one percent to help pay for the project.

McCulloh said sales tax is a regressive tax that hits people with low and fixed incomes.

“It also hits those big-ticket items,” she said. “I definitely want to hear from auto dealers to see whether they think people will go elsewhere in Kansas to buy.”

McCulloh said the commission will also have to consider the staffing cost with the new facilities.

“You can build something neat, but as we’ve found with the pools, staffing cost is significant,” she said. “We’ve had difficulties to find the staff, especially after school started.”

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