By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Opinions varied Tuesday night as to whether the city of Pittsburg should fund a portion of a proposed $17 million event center and indoor track and field site at Pittsburg State University, what funding stream should be used, and whether the proposal should be put to a vote of the people.
For the second time in nine days, PSU officials, including President Steve Scott, and project supporters, including Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson and Convention and Visitors Bureau Director B.J. Harris, presented in a public forum what they called the necessity and benefits of the project.
They requested that the city put $7.6 million toward it.
“We have a chance tonight to make a landmark decision,” said project spokeswoman Kaye Lynn Webb, whose family owns the Watco transportation company and who worked in the PSU president’s office for more than two decades. “I hope you come to the same conclusion we have. This is a wonderful, golden opportunity. But we need to get it done.”
Discussion as to what funding stream should be used focused primarily on the city’s Revolving Loan Fund, paid for through half of a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1985. The loan fund’s share generates about $800,000 to $900,000 a year, and it could generate more this year as sales tax revenue is up about 5 percent, according to City Manager Daron Hall.
But Mayor John Ketterman said he is skeptical about the future of the fund, as the economy remains uncertain. He lobbied for putting the proposal to a ballot vote.
“We don’t know if (the Revolving Loan Fund money) will be here next year, and we would have to end up raising taxes in some way, shape or form to pay for this,” he said. “I believe it needs to go to a vote of the people. If you truly want to have a partnership with the city of Pittsburg, the community, they have the right to vote on this. That’s just my opinion.”
City Commissioners Patrick O’Bryan, Marty Beezley and Michael Gray disagreed.
“I think that’s what they hired us for,” O’Bryan said.
Beezley said that under no circumstances would a city investment in the project require raising taxes. She advocated the use of the loan fund, and said that such an investment would create job growth for which the city has been looking.
“You’re an industry here in the community, and you’re not going to leave,” Beezley said. “Those RLF funds ... what they have done for this community, to grow this community, I could defend to the nth degree for a very long time. I think we could inform the community and they would see how very beneficial they would be.”
O’Bryan, too, said he supported investing in the university.
“All people talk about job growth,” he said. “We’ve got this sitting right here. People voted on the sales tax to set that money aside for economic development. They’ve already voted. At that voting, they gave us the directive to administer. We have a sure bet here.”
He cautioned, however, that “when looking at 10,000 students, we’ll be faced with some real infrastructure challenges that will have to be addressed.”
Scott emphasized that the university’s growing enrollment is providing the city with about $8 million a year in student spending. He said “the time is now” for the project, because it would make PSU attractive to recruits and would provide an indoor space capable of housing large tournaments and trade shows.
Hall, the city manager, said he had several ideas for funding options he was prepared to discuss with university officials before presenting the City Commission a final plan for consideration. The commission directed him to work on financing options and present a plan at a future meeting, perhaps as early as the Dec. 11 commission meeting.
PITTSBURG STATE UNIVERSITY, with 1,867 employees, is the largest employer in Crawford County. A study by a local consulting group suggests that three proposed projects to be built at PSU could net 444 jobs.