By John Kanelis
It's been said that history has a way of repeating itself.
So it might be as Amarillo voters this week decide the fate of a multipurpose event venue.
Flash back about five years to another squabble that erupted when Kids Incorporated sought to relocate its offices to a site north of the Amarillo Civic Center. The then-Amarillo City Commission pledged to spend $6 million in certificates of obligation to build an indoor basketball and volleyball court complex. Kids Inc. would raise the rest of the money through private donations to finish construction and contribute to its operation.
However, as Kids Inc. executive director Jimmy Lackey remembered it, the fighting among commissioners – and between the commission and some folks in the community – became so intense that Kids Inc. backed out.
"That's not what we were all about," Lackey said. "We didn't want to get caught up in the politics of it," he said.
The issue took wing in the spring of 2010 when then-Mayor Debra McCartt called for requests for proposals from anyone interested in operating the courts on what remains a large vacant lot next to the Civic Center.
Kids Inc. submitted an RFP, said Lackey. "In 2011, the city accepted our proposal," Lackey said, and then committed to issuing the certificates of obligation.
"Kids Inc. was going to be the managing partner," Lackey said.
Lackey recalled that in that year's municipal election, the city had a "huge ballot" full of candidates seeking spots on the five-member City Commission. Then, as was the case prior to this year's City Council election, the community debate became quite intense, according to Lackey.
Lackey, who has run Kids Inc. for 20 years, said that "this proposal became the subject of much of that debate."
It was about that time, Lackey said, that he decided that Kids Inc. "didn't want to be a part of this discussion. So, I walked into the City Commission meeting and backed out. I told them, 'This is not what we do.'"
Lackey said that "people then kept calling it the 'Kids Inc. building,' which wasn't the case at all. The city would own it. We just would operate it."
He said the goal was to "bring club groups in to participate in tournaments and to bring in dollars" that would boost the Amarillo economy.
Lackey said the city still has a big need for the kind of indoor sports venue that he envisioned with the failed project downtown. He cited Denver's success in playing host to youth basketball and volleyball tournaments. "Denver has about 100 courts that it leases out at its civic center for tournament," Lackey said.
The idea for Amarillo, he said, would be to lease out the space to groups that could come here to participate in basketball and volleyball tournaments.
Kids Inc. is still in the tournament business, Lackey said. It now relies on gymnasiums provided by the Amarillo Independent School District. "We are quite happy" with that arrangement, Lackey said. "We're happy to use the school gyms," he added.
AISD has added gyms with money approved by a recent bond issue that voters approved, Lackey said, citing the space built at Fannin, Travis, Bonham and Bowie schools. De Zavala Elementary School added another gym about 10 years ago, Lackey said.
All told, he said, AISD has added seven gyms. "That's a bunch," according to Lackey.
The greater Amarillo community has sought to expand its youth sports venues as well, Lackey said, noting the recent purchase of the South YMCA site by Netplex Amarillo, which is expanding that campus to include more indoor basketball and volleyball activity.
Some other efforts have fallen short, Lackey said. He spoke of the building that was erected on South Loop 335/Hollywood Road. "A private group built those courts, then sold it to Randall County," Lackey said. The site is now being used by the county fire department as an entertainment venue. "We lost eight volleyball courts there," Lackey said.
Lackey, a West Texas A&M University alumnus who lives in Canyon, recently joined the Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council board of directors and said he believes the city still has a big need for a comprehensive indoor sports venue.
"Tournaments fill up hotel rooms," Lackey said. He noted that he took one of his daughters to Lubbock for a volleyball tournament. The matches ended late in the evening and since Lackey and his family wanted to see his daughter play the next day, they looked for lodging where they could spend the night. "We couldn't find a hotel room anywhere," he said. "Everything in Lubbock, Levelland, Brownfield and Plainview was booked up," he added.
With that, Lackey said he and his family drove home to Canyon and returned to Lubbock the next day – on little sleep – to watch the next day's volleyball tournament action. What's more, Lackey said with a smile, "That was the weekend that we 'sprung forward' to start daylight savings time. So, we lost an hour's sleep."
"The youth sports industry is huge," Lackey said.
"We end up having to weigh our needs against the rate of return," he said, believing the return on investing in youth sports makes the investment worthwhile.