Archive for Thursday, November 2, 2006

Soccer crazy Johnson County to vote on soccer complex

November 2, 2006

It won't be in De Soto, but Johnson County could still be home to a major league soccer team and youth soccer complex.

The issue will be decided at the polls Tuesday when Johnson County voters choose whether or not to support a property-tax increase in order to fund a 24-field soccer park with a recreation center in southern Overland Park.

Proponents say the fields are "for the kids," but opponents say the fields are designated for overly expensive land in order to help obtain state sales tax and revenue bonds for the Kansas City Wizards stadium.

The city of De Soto and local economic development interests submitted a proposal to build the stadium and complex southwest of the city. The proposal was among three still under consideration before a new potential Kansas City Wizard ownership group opted to go with the Overland Park site.

The bond issue would pay for the Johnson County Park and Recreation District to build up to 24 soccer fields and a recreation center on the 140-acre site at U.S. 69 and 159th Street, raising the district's current 2.238 mill levy by .693 mills.

Directly to the north of the complex is a proposed stadium for the Wizards, to be built if developers can obtain the necessary S.T.A.R. bonds. (The bonds are actually sales tax accelerated revenue bonds. Thanks to special legislation passed several years ago, the bonds are retired with money collected from sales taxes on the property.) A mixed-use office, residential, retail, hotel and entertainment district will be next to the stadium.

Proponents say the fields are needed in the county, which ranks as one of the top-10 soccer communities per capita in the United States. They say 19,000 games were played in the county last year on overused and undersized fields.

The park and recreation district's Web site reports that the site for the soccer fields maximizes the taxpayers' investment through reduced infrastructure costs for roads and utilities. It is easily accessible, and its possible proximity to the professional soccer stadium and retail development would enhance its ability to attract regional and national soccer tournaments.

But even if the Wizards stadium and retail development doesn't move forward, the soccer complex will be built, and none of the money generated by the property tax increase can be used for the Wizards stadium or retail.

But several groups have come out in opposition to the project, questioning if this is the best use of taxpayer money. Joyce Millard heads up one group called Blue Valley Home Owners Against Tax Waste, consisting largely of those who live in neighborhoods surrounding the proposed site.

Millard said that before she heard about a park and recreation district advisory board meeting in late August, at which the board voted to put the bond issue on the ballot, she had never heard about the proposed soccer park, stadium and retail development, and she found none of her neighbors had, either.

Those neighbors grew to a core group of 25 representing 10 subdivisions. Millard said they are concerned about the increased traffic and noise in their area, but they aren't only saying "not in my backyard."

"I get insulted when people suggest that that's our only agenda," Millard said. "Our concerns are much broader than that. The whole idea that the youth soccer fields have been introduced as a way to exploit the children for commercial gain on the part of the Wizards and the retail, that's really what it's all about. I'd like to see someone step up to this issue and admit for the first time that they're all interconnected."

Millard and neighbor Michelle Larsen, a co-owner of the Baby and Tot Boutique in Shawnee, say that if the fields were just for the children and had no ties to the Wizards development, the county wouldn't be spending more than $150,000 per acre for land at the proposed site, including infrastructure costs.

They point to six other premiere soccer complexes in the country that are currently under construction or were built in the last few years for much less. They say none are across the street from schools like at the Blue Valley site, and all of the other complexes were also built in an area that had sufficient infrastructure.

Larsen adds that the fields are only for select soccer teams; church or school-related leagues will not be able to use the fields.

The Blue Valley homeowners group is joined by Wayne Flaherty, an Overland Park resident who calls his group Homeowners Against Soccer Welfare. He says if there is no tie between the county's soccer fields and the Wizards, how are the proponents funding their ad campaign, which he estimates has cost at least $400,000 for commercials on Kansas City's four major television stations.

The "Yes on Soccer" group revealed Tuesday Brothers Real Estate had donated $500,000 to the campaign. The company owns property at the development site.

The opponents say the developers of the Wizards stadium need the soccer complex in order to obtain S.T.A.R. bonds, which are used for projects that boost state tourism, because the stadium alone isn't the type of destination draw needed to meet requirements for the bonds.

"The Wizards picked the spot, and then they had to decide how to make it happen," Millard said. "And the first step was to get it on the ballot as youth soccer fields, and the rest will follow. Now, when are people going to wake up and see that? I don't know -- but we're running out of time."

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