Wichita eyes cutting $6M pickleball complex as state funding for homeless shelter stalls

By Matthew Kelly The Wichita Eagle | April 1, 2024

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Wichita will be able to rely on state dollars to help build a city-owned homeless shelter. And one council member has proposed scaling down or eliminating a $6 million pickleball complex planned for south Wichita so the money could be used for the shelter instead. A House bill allocating $40 million in matching funds for local homeless infrastructure died in committee last week, and although a version of the bill could still come before the Senate for a vote, it’s taken on a dramatically different form. The Senate bill slashes the allotment for infrastructure spending in half to $20 million, 20% of which would be earmarked for communities with under 90,000 people. In addition, every city in Kansas would be required to adopt and enforce a non-camping ordinance under an amendment introduced by Salina Republican J.R. Claeys. Claeys also introduced an amendment prohibiting the use of grant funds for homeless infrastructure at one specific site — the former Riverside Hospital in Wichita — where the city had been offered an option to build its shelter.

In an interview, Claeys said the prohibition on the Riverside site was requested by another senator from Wichita. “It’s adjacent to a neighborhood and the idea there was to prevent there from being construction right next to a neighborhood,” Claeys said. The city is also considering HumanKind Ministries’ downtown campus as a possible location for its roughly $80 million project, which would include a shelter, transitional housing and a navigation center for people experiencing housing insecurity. Mayor Lily Wu and the delegation of city officials who traveled to Topeka in January to advocate for the multi-agency center project were hoping to secure as much as $20 million in matching funds for the shelter part of it. “We’re bearing the brunt of a lot of the housing insecurity for folks in Kansas — not just in Wichita but people from outside of our community coming from outside of our community to get those services,” Wu said Tuesday.

“That’s what we advocated at the state level, saying ‘We need some help.’ . . . So it does disappoint me that they did not put any funding towards the multi-agency center.” The city has also applied for $20 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credit for the transitional housing component through the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation. “We already have money set aside specifically for low-income housing, and hopefully we’re going to get those dollars. We’re still waiting to hear back from the application process, but it’s the sheltering piece that we need funding for,” Wu said. City and county officials have reassured residents in northeast Wichita that the 24/7 emergency shelter at 2220 E. 21st St. was a temporary solution after HumanKind announced in October that its own North Market shelter could not open because of “facility issues and capacity constraints.” CUTTING PICKLEBALL FUNDING During a workshop Tuesday, City Council member Dalton Glasscock pointed out one way the city could free up some money for the shelter — by scaling down or eliminating the $6 million pickleball complex planned for his southwest Wichita district.

That plan, approved unanimously last year at the urging of former Mayor Brandon Whipple, would bring a tournament-grade 24-court facility to South Lakes Park. If not for a botched bid, the state-of-the-art facility would already be under construction. Glasscock directed staff to report back on the potential cost savings of instead developing a six-court concept at South Lakes and adding nine courts at Riverside Tennis Center, bringing the total to 24 pickleball courts there.

The council will probably choose between that plan and re-bidding construction for the South Lakes complex, which Parks Director Troy Houtman and pickleball boosters say would be significantly more likely to draw regional and national tournaments to Wichita. “I’ve spoken to pickleball folks from all around the region, and yeah, they come down here [to Riverside]. However, it’s not the place that they really want to come to,” Houtman said. “The place that they really want to come to is a facility that’s actually built for pickleball. “The [South Lakes] bid actually came out under the estimated cost,” he said. “We were very close to actually constructing this. It was ready to go out the door.” But Conco Construction, which won the three-way bid in December to build the pickleball complex, failed to furnish the insurance bond required by the city and the contract was never signed, Houtman told the park board in January. The construction company disputed that account in an email statement. “Conco, Inc. provided bid security in a form that has historically been accepted by the city. Ultimately, Conco was notified that the City was not accepting Conco’s bid security, despite being the low bidder on the project, and that the project was not likely to move forward at this time. Conco values its relationship with the City of Wichita and stands ready to support them, as needed, on the pickleball project and any future projects,” the statement reads.

At this point, the pickleball project would have to win the approval of the new conservative majority on the City Council before it can be re-bid for construction. Glasscock said he’s optimistic that the city could create both a regional destination for pickleball at Riverside and a neighborhood facility at South Lakes for around $2 million. “Especially given the state’s decision to likely not move forward on funding for a component of the emergency shelter and enforcement of our [no camping] laws . . . let’s say we allocate $4 million of the $6 million [to the homeless shelter],” Glasscock said.

 Wu, who pointed to the pickleball complex as an example of frivolous city spending during her mayoral campaign last year, said she liked the idea. Council member Becky Tuttle, who previously voted for the South Lakes complex, said she worries about the return on investment for a more modest project.

“When this project doubled in cost, it was because we were presented with information that if we took something good and made it great, we’d get a better return on investment,” Tuttle said. “So if we take something and strip it down so much, is the return on investment going to be so diminished that it’s not worth it? “I don’t want us to think we don’t deserve nice things, because we do.” Council member Brandon Johnson said lawmakers in Topeka are neglecting their responsibility if they fail to authorize homeless infrastructure funding. “The state Legislature has a huge purse of more than a billion dollars, and because of a lack of action, we are now looking at changing our quality of life plans to support something that they should be supporting, and I think that’s unfortunate.” Contributing: Katie Bernard of The Kansas City Star

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