Categories crunchfx

Pickleball and water park can’t replace basketball at Lee’s Summit park

As funding for Kansas City’s suburban parks departments increases, efforts to renovate and beautify these public spaces sometimes quickly turn into demolishing basketball courts and replacing them with disc golf courses, racquetball and tennis courts.

The public parks in Lee’s Summit are a good example of these efforts, starting with the $5 million renovation of Lea McKeighan Park that began in 2017. As part of that effort, the suburb tore down the park’s basketball courts and replaced them with a skateboard park, water park, pickleball courts and an ice rink. The basketball courts were never restored.

Ryan Sorrell grew up in Lee’s Summit. He’s the founder of the Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit that’s one of the fastest-growing Black news organizations in the country. As a child, Sorrell remembers spending a lot of time on the basketball courts at McKeighan Park. “It was a place where a lot of Black people, especially young Black people, came together. It was a place to socialize in a safe way,” Sorrell says. The removal of the basketball courts “had a very detrimental — potentially even violent — impact on our community.”

Because of the Parks Department’s conscious choices about what to build in place of the demolished basketball courts, Lee’ Summit residents (the majority of whom are children and minorities) are being secretly and openly discouraged from using these public facilities.

Lee’s Summit has invested millions of dollars in city parks, and the suburb continues to be one of the fastest-growing communities in Missouri, while median home prices continue to rise. Park projects are funded by revenue from a quarter-cent city sales tax, so as Lee’s Summit grows, there will inevitably be more funding for public parks.

When I initially tried to reach out to someone in the parks department for comment, I got curt responses from the marketing coordinator and was told not to contact anyone further than City Hall. I wonder if they’ve remained silent since an incident at Lee’s Summit public pool Summit Waves in August 2022, which made international news when a group of mostly black poolgoers were turned away from using the facilities.

I finally emailed Lee’s Summit Parks Director Joe Snook, who explained how these park decisions are made. “For undeveloped and existing parks undergoing renovation, park facility decisions involve several factors: budget, property size, existing infrastructure, site access and location, neighborhood and/or community input, geography, and demographics,” he wrote.

Snook also discussed some of the projects planned for Lee’s Summit parks in the next five years, including an indoor sports complex (indoor sports complexes are typically not free and require more oversight than outdoor courts) and an outdoor pickleball complex with eight to 12 courts.

“I view these changes as clear attempts to transform or eradicate existing Black demographics,” Sorrell said in response. “Basketball is an activity that many young Black people enjoy doing together. Black people do not play pickleball.”

Lee’s Summit’s Lowenstein Park underwent a major renovation that began in 2020. It includes a single half-basketball court, but Sorrell says that has caused problems, too: “There are luxury apartments being built right next to Lowenstein Park, and a lot of the greenery has been taken out. They’ve installed cameras and surveillance systems. I’ve been called out by the police there a few times for racial profiling,” he told me. “The police presence has increased, and I see fewer Black people in the park overall.”

Improvements to public parks are often beneficial to cities, but they also limit the number of people who can use the facilities. “Our water park, community centers, amphitheater, ice rink, sports complexes and similar facilities provide programming and special events that draw people to our community and contribute to the economic activity of Lee’s Summit,” Snook wrote.

While it is a positive development that parks bring economic benefits to the city, they also alienate those who cannot benefit from paid services, as parks have historically been free public spaces for everyone.

I spoke to several area youth who said they often have to drive or ride to Blue Springs to play basketball because there are limited places in Lee’s Summit where they can play for free.

Decisions about park renovations are made by park staff and the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation board. I wonder: Who do they have in mind when they make these decisions? Even something as seemingly small as how we design our park attractions can be indicative of larger trends throughout a city. Where you invest, you grow. And Lee’s Summit doesn’t seem interested in investing in basketball or in the people who live and play basketball here.

Molly Higgins is an associate editor for Kansas City magazine and a contributing writer and producer for Wired. She lives in Lee’s Summit.