Background: In December, by a vote of 6-1, the Johnson County Parks & Rec voted to take part in the King Louie project with the county. I raised opposition at the time but my opposition intensified. These are the remarks I delivered at the JCPRD Board Meeting on Wednesday, January 21st, after we heard from several members of the public. After my presentation I offered to second a motion to suspend our involvement in King Louie. None was forthcoming so our involvement stands.
I appreciate the board’s indulgence in allowing me to re-state and expand upon my opposition to this project. Over the past few weeks since the original vote, my concerns with this project have grown. While some see this as an opportunity to place major programming into a facility without a direct cost to the Parks District, I reject that premise. I believe that we are making a major mistake by entering into an agreement that is not prudent for the taxpayer and sets terrible precedents that set up our parks district for trouble in the future.
First of all, the price tag. I understand that the money being spent on this facility is not out of our budget, and that therefore some feel we’re merely accepting “free” space. However, let’s remember we are agreeing to put major programming into King Louie, manage all of King Louie, and put any revenue we generate right back into King Louie. Let’s also remember the taxpayers who fund JoCo Government are the same taxpayers who fund JCPRD. Joe Johnson County Taxpayer does not care one iota if the money comes out of his parks pocket or his county pocket – it’s still his pocket. So, no, this project is not free – it’s money from the very people who fund our parks, money that we should treasure and treat carefully — and by entering into this agreement to the substantial degree that we are, we have married ourselves to that expenditure in the eyes of the public.
If you favor it and can justify it – vote for it. But, if you doubt the wisdom of the King Louie project, then I’d strongly urge you to consider whether this is the best decision for the Parks District, particularly since some want to return to that same taxpayer later this year for a mill levy increase or bonding authority in a bid to open new parks.
Do you not think it’s quite possible Johnson Countians say, “look, you already took over $20 million of our money for a Arts & Heritage Center at King Louie, we’re not giving you anymore”? I certainly do. So, if you think more authority from the voters is critical to future park development, then I’d think very carefully about the message you’re sending here regarding our priorities in regards to their money.
Along those same lines, I am also concerned about the appropriateness of the project. I recognize that in an era of fancy new community centers, tax incentives and other government giveaways, the lines between the private sector and the public sector have been blurred. However, in this case, the once blurred line has been completely erased.
The county, in a time of economic instability, has bought up a private development along a major thoroughfare located in the heart of Johnson County, in what is supposed to be an area for private redevelopment. One would think this decision was made due to the lack of available land owned by the people, but as we know, the opposite is the case.
In fact, it was only last year that the county asked us to debt finance the park police building, and the reason stated was so we could open up some of the millions of acres of park land that we currently own but that are not developed. In fact, the very next item on our agenda is an update on the lengthy study we’re conducting on how to develop and facilitate all that land.
It seems to me that if the county was so intent on entering into an agreement with the parks to save the museum and/or open a theater, they might offer to spend that same money to place them on the very land they’re pushing us to open, where substantial room to build either or both exists.
Instead, they’ve decided to spend money to purchase a private development, spend even more money to make sure it doesn’t collapse on itself, and now spend another $18 million to make it usable – when we could have just let the private sector handle King Louie and opened up the very same facilities on the land the public already owns.
Someone smarter than me needs to explain how that’s at all appropriate.
Finally, I want to challenge the notion that this is a great deal for JCPRD, as I believe we are making a short sighted decision that forsakes our future for the present desire to have an indoor theater.
I very much understand the desire for a theater. The idea of opening up an indoor theater that we could operate year round and offer to community theater groups, business groups, and the like is very attractive, and it’s very difficult to say no when the opportunity is before us.
However, I feel we must.
Looking at just the theater for a moment, I consider this decision somewhat curious for something that could be a highlight of our system. I just cannot endorse the idea that King Louie is the best place to spend money on an indoor theater. I’ll never be sold on that.
Also, I would caution against believing we’ll never spend money out of our own budget on this facility. Remember, this only passed by one vote. All it takes is a little shift or one election and everything could change. What if they all of a sudden want us to pay rent, too? What if they want us to pay for any future upgrades? I understand under the agreement we could then remove our participation, but would we really do that once a theater is operating? I doubt it.
Finally, I believe most within the JCPRD family agree that a cornerstone of our ability to be successful as a parks district is our independent status under state law, rather than simply being another county department. I share that sentiment, but I think this decision will directly undermine that belief by setting a poor precedent for the future.
We’re putting major programming into a facility owned by the county, the same county that has at times wanted to have more control over our operations. In my mind, there is no substantial difference between agreeing to things like this and being just another county department. How do we support this and oppose other similar proposals that would further infringe on the spirit of an independent parks district? On future questions, I fail to see where we can logically draw the line without losing the argument in a big hurry.
In closing, as I stated in December, I want to note that my opposition to the King Louie project should not be construed as opposition to the museum nor an indoor theater. Rather, as a believer in good government, not big government, I believe there is a better way. I believe in our ability to put our heads together, as board members, as staff, together with our patrons and come up with a creative solution that respects the taxpayer, uses land we already own, is appropriate for government, and maintains the integrity of our wonderful parks district. I also believe that sometimes the best plan may take a little longer to develop, but yields a better result.
On that note, I recommend we immediately suspend negotiations with the county regarding the King Louie project.
Mike Pirner firstname.lastname@example.org