The Sedgwick County Soccer Association has closed after decades of league play in Wichita, according to a message sent to The Sentinel. The Sedgwick County Soccer Association closing seems to result from the City of Wichita awarding a no-bid contract for management of the Stryker Sports Complex, which is subsidized by city- and state-approved Sales Tax and Revenue (STAR) Bonds.
Emails and documents obtained by The Sentinel through an Open Records Request show the Wichita city manager’s office collaborated with the management of the Wichita Sports Forum (WSF) to ensure that the city council voted to give the for-profit company the exclusive management agreement of the city-owned Stryker soccer complex last September. The city manager’s office advocated for WSF to exclusively run the Stryker soccer field even though it had no experience operating a soccer league.
Pam Dyer, a soccer coach for the Sedgwick County Soccer Association in Derby, said that prompted an increase in fees to participate in league soccer in the metro and created travel challenges for parents in less-affluent areas of the county.
“As a club director, a coach and a parent, I would say the impact to me was more that it has gotten more expensive. Immediately more expensive. We don’t have an option to play a competitive level, we don’t have any other options but Stryker. So obviously if you want to continue playing you need to pay more,” said Dyer
The city’s choice to give a no-bid contract to the for-profit company created a de facto monopoly on competitive level play in Wichita. However, Tymber Lee, one of the owners of the Wichita Sports Forum, made it clear to Marc Ohm, the President of the Sedgwick County Soccer Association in a 2018 email that the Wichita Sports Forum would not allow Sedgwick County Soccer Association to use Stryker fields as was initially encouraged. Lee wrote that any collaboration between the two entities would be, “finalized by Stryker organizing/running its own league and SCSA discontinuing its league by fall 2019. At this point, this is the only proposal we are willing to entertain.” (Emphasis is Lee’s.)
An email from City Manager Robert Layton to Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell shows the city knew that the fees were a major incentive for WSF to take the contract, writing, “The Sports Forum’s Pro-forma requires league revenues to help fund its maintenance expenses and tournament operations.”
Layton continued, “I am sure that this authorization has created the anxiety among Southside officials.”
The anxiety Layton referenced may stem from internal criticism of the Stryker deal. Rebecca Fields, a legislative aid to Councilman Jeff Blubaugh, looked into criticism of the Stryker deal for Blubaugh. Fields was underwhelmed by the response she received from Assistant City Manager Scot Rigby.
Fields wrote, “The clubs in southwest Wichita are looking for solutions, not how well the affluent east side is handling their sports complex.”
Another email reveals that how the field would eliminate a STAR Bond opportunity from South Wichita. Fields wrote to Rigby in July of 2018, “As you know we are wanting to see the 47th & Meridian area developed through a STAR Bond, and this would involve SCSA.”
As early as June 2018 (three months before the WSF management agreement was voted on by the Wichita City Council), the City was promoting WSF as the day-to-day manager of the complex. An email from Rigby to Dan Popik, the Vice President of Youth Soccer for the Sporting KC, introduced Popik to WSF noting, “I would like to include the Wichita Sports Forum, who will be our day to day operator of the facility.” The email was about developing a partnership between the Stryker Complex and Sporting KC.
Mark Ohm, President of the Sedgwick County Soccer Association, described how the city handled the development of the complex.
“No dialogue or communication with Wichita metro area youth and adult sports leagues that would have an interest in using the facility. They never brought all of the potentially interested parties to the table to discuss and get feedback on how to make the complex as successful as possible,” says Ohm
The agreement approved by city council gave the management of a multi-million dollar sports complex to a private, for-profit company. In an email to The Sentinel, Wichita City Councilman Brandon Johnson (District I), who voted against the agreement along with Bryan Frye (District V), cited competition as part of the reason he voted against it.
“I did not feel comfortable agreeing to hand over this public opportunity to a management firm that profits off of it while not seemingly working with other organizations already established within our city. If public land/space is being managed then I feel that more of the public should benefit,” says Johnson.
Brandon Johnson feels that the public-private partnership in this instance is not creating a level playing field.
“I do believe that public-private partnerships can be beneficial to the community when done right. If not done right, then it can have the possibility of creating an unfair advantage for some businesses,” says Johnson.
Heads in Beds
The feasibility analysis for the Stryker complex conducted by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University cites an economic goal of capturing some of the travel and tourism dollars. Wichita Assistant City Manager Scot Rigby said this is a great way to get visitors to consider relocating to Wichita.
“If we can get people in Wichita, it becomes a much easier sell for them to take a job at Textron or Koch, or any number of our industries, by saying we were in your community last year,” says Rigby
Rigby believes that people bringing their kids to a soccer tournament and staying near K-96 and Greenwich will inspire families to relocate to Wichita, but no data was provided by the city to back up this claim. As the feasibility study noted, “The developer estimates 50 to 60 percent of these visitors will travel more than 100 miles, or 55,000 to 82,500 out of area visitors each year. It is further estimated that 35 to 40 percent of these visitors will be from out of state, or 37,500 to 56,250.”
The Wichita Sports Forum was awarded the lucrative management contract without bids.
Ohm says, “The City Council never requested bids from any other entities that might be interested in managing and operating the Stryker complex.”
Wichita Assistant City Manager Scot Rigby says having the Wichita Sports Forum involved in the process was important to get the state to approve the STAR Bonds.
“It was a far better story and business model than a city running the facility and trying to attract regional and national sport tourism events,” says Rigby
Yet, Ohm notes that Sheel’s Soccer Complex in Overland Park, which is a regional competitor of Stryker for tournaments is comparable size, owned and managed by the city and funded in such a way that once the debt is paid off, Overland Park will have benefit from the cash generated.
“The Wichita City Council passed up a chance to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in positive cash flow on an annual basis,” says Ohm
City as Landlord
One drawback of the city being the landlord of the Stryker complex is being responsible to pay for any changes to the facility that the Wichita Sports Complex request. In a September 2019 City Council meeting, City Engineer Gary Janzen with the Wichita Public Works Department asked for an additional $700,000 in general obligation bonds to pay for another parking lot. He said the parking lots get full on weekends now that Stryker is also hosting football games on Friday nights.
Councilman Bryan Frye asked, “Explain to me why we are not being able to use STAR Bond funding for these improvements. Did we use everything that was allocated?”
Janzen replied that “We used everything that was allocated to this point as I mentioned with the $22 million dollars.”
However, there is still $11 million earmarked from STAR Bond proceeds to develop a golf driving range bar and entertainment venue similar to Top Golf. The developers have until 2021 to find take the project up. If no business is found the money will go back to paying down the STAR bonds.
In the meantime though, Wichita taxpayers are on the hook for another $700,000 in the form of a general obligation bond to pay for more work on the property. According to Janzen, the parking lot is just the start of potential improvements.
Money continues to flow into the Stryker complex from the city and from soccer parents, but there is little accountability for proving the positive impact to the Wichita economy. In the end, Dyer says as a coach, it is clear someone is making money off the changes in the Wichita soccer scene.
“Everyone is like, everything is for the kids, but the people who control the money and facilities, that’s not what they want. They say that, but there are decisions in there that they make, that now it is the bottom line. It is profit. They do not make decisions based on what is good for families.”