A no-bid contract to privatize the city-owned Stryker Sports Complex was blocked at the goal line Tuesday, after officials of the city’s biggest youth soccer league said it could run them out of business.
The City Council decided to put off a vote and take another week to try to resolve conflict between the owners of the Wichita Sports Forum, the for-profit business proposed to take over Stryker, and the Sedgwick County Soccer Association, the city’s dominant youth league.
The controversy comes 11 months after the council voted to spend $22 million to upgrade the mammoth sports complex near K-96 and Greenwich. City staff has proposed turning the operation over to Sports Forum, which operates a private indoor multi-sport facility nearby.
Construction is now underway at Stryker to replace 13 grass fields with 11 artificial-turf fields, one of which would be indoors. The main goal is to attract out-of-town teams and families for regional soccer and other field-sports tournaments to boost local tourism and the economy.
Mark Ohm, the president of the county soccer league, said some of the teams in his league would like to be able to play on the new fields at Stryker, but Sports Forum is planning to start its own youth league.
Ohm said the only option to emerge from months of talks with the Sports Forum’s owner would be for the nonprofit league to fold and turn its 4,500 players and 393 teams over to the Sports Forum’s new for-profit league.
“The last communication from Wichita Sports Forum, dated July 7, 2018, stated that we could rent fields at the Stryker Complex for only the spring 2019 season and they then ask us to discontinue our league,” Ohm said. “And we have no interest in shutting down our league.”
Sports Forum co-owner Tymber Lee said hosting a soccer league at Stryker is an important component of being able to operate the complex profitably.
“We’re being charged with managing a very large facility,” he said.
Under the proposed agreement, the Sports Forum would pay City Hall $130,000 to $140,000 a year to lease the fields for the first 10 years, with options to renew five years at a time after that.
Sports Forum would be responsible for maintaining the facility and scheduling its use and would keep any profits.
Lee said he doesn’t want to run the local league out of town.
“I was accused of wanting them to demise, or to squash them or whatever it was. That has never been my intention. We actually, as a management group, approached SCSA first, to see about if there was a possibility of a collaborated effort, some sort of a merger, you pick the word.”
He said it’s critically important to his business that Sports Forum have control over the program at the Stryker Complex, because the management group will be held to quotas for out-of-town participation to comply with state requirements for the city-approved sales tax bonds that are financing the renovation.
In that final e-mail to the local soccer league, “I said hey, no harm, no foul, no hard feelings,” Lee said. “We’ll continue with our league, you continue with yours, not a big deal.”
The soccer league now plays on natural-turf fields leased from the city at the South Lakes soccer complex near Meridian and 47th Street South.
Ohm said the group supports the stated goal of renovating Stryker to bring in more regional tournaments, but the group would like to use Stryker in the off weeks when no tournaments are scheduled.
“We’re not trying to stop what’s going on out there, we’re simply asking to be a part of it,” Ohm said.
Ohm complained that the city excluded the league from having input into the deal for Sports Forum to take over Stryker.
“It’s very disappointing when a charitable organization that over the past 27 years has created and built the largest youth sports league in the city of Wichita (is) completely left out of the discussion,” he said.
He had a sympathetic ear on that from Mayor Jeff Longwell, who suggested putting the contract with Sports Forum on hold for further talks.
“I think all Sedgwick County Soccer’s asking for is an opportunity to keep their organization going,” Longwell said.
Council member Bryan Frye expressed concern that the city hadn’t issued a request for proposals before negotiating an agreement with Sports Forum to take over Stryker.
Economic development analyst Mark Elder said the staff had discussed seeking proposals, but it’s not required.
The Sports Forum is particularly qualified to run the facility, and state officials encouraged Wichita to work with that company as part of its deliberations in approving the sales tax bonds to pay for the new soccer fields, Elder said.