LAWRENCE, Kan. — More than 100 people rallied outside Lawrence City Hall and packed a City Commission meeting Tuesday night.

Public comment on the city’s proposed $436 million budget took more than two hours with nearly every speaker pointing to one thing not included in the upcoming fiscal budget.

The city is trying to trim its budget and Lawrence’s City Manager Craig Owens has proposed closing Prairie Park Nature Center to save $337,000 per year. Owens said the park ranks in the bottom quartile of aligning with public priorities outlined in 2020 creating a Lawrence with an “unmistakable identity.”

“Parks and rec and nature are one and two in public priorities so how you put Prairie Park Nature Center at the lowest priority is beyond me,” Linda Wheeler, who served on a committee to open the park in the late 1990s, said.

“This is so unmistakably Lawrence. It’s not just that it’s a nature center,” Christie Peterson said.

The 100 acre prairie preserve offers educational programs in a building stocked with animals and exhibits.

“We not only do field trips. They will come to our classrooms my kids will go to the center after school,” Lori Greenfield, a teacher of 25 years at nearby Prairie Park Elementary School on the east side of Lawrence, said.

But the center is 80% subsidized with taxpayer money. Owens explained to the crowd that packed the city commission meeting and the lobby outside that he’s been charged with eliminating $11 million in year over year structural deficits without raising property or sales tax.

Though revenue is rebounding from COVID 19, inflation is at a 40 year high.

“Nobody enjoys reductions this is why its so challenging,” Owens said.

Dozens of speakers told the commission to find other places to cut.

“Please don’t close the Prairie Park Nature Center. We need it. We love it. Where would all the animals go?” A young boy named Warren wondered as a line of speakers stretched into lobby.

Owens has proposed the animals be rehomed, staff be transferred and the building be leased or repurposed as an early education center. Some proposed fundraising efforts or donations to keep the free nature center open.

“There are so many different ways the center could be supported financially that conversation hasn’t even started,” Greenfield said.

Those discussions expected to continue until the budget is adopted on September 6th. Another budget hearing is scheduled August 23.

“I think we are making a difference and as long as we are helping kids have the resources they need to educate themselves outside of school and educate themselves on the surroundings in their community we are doing a good thing,” Ian Moran said.

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