A group of nearly 100 Merriam residents on Tuesday turned out to get a first look at three concepts for a new facility that would replace the aging Irene B. French Community Center and Merriam Aquatic Center on a single site.
The proposals, the results of months of work between consultants, parks and recreation officials and the city administration, offered distinct facility options. Consultants told the attendees that after considerable exploration of the existing sites for both the community center and the aquatic center, they had determined it made the most sense to combine both functions on the aquatic center site, which doesn’t face some of the drainage and parking issues that are challenges on the community center site.
The first concept would include a community center, an indoor swimming facility and an outdoor swimming facility. The second would include a community center and only an indoor swimming facility. The third would include a community center and only an outdoor swimming facility.
Parks and Recreation Director Anna Slocum opened the meeting by telling attendees that the city essentially had three options when it came to maintenance or replacement of its existing facilities:
- It could take what she called a “band-aid” approach and invest $4 to $6 million to make repairs to the Irene B. French Community Center building and $1 to $1.5 million in repairs to aquatic center — but those would be short-term fixes to mounting maintenance issues that are likely to get more and more expensive as time goes on.
- It could spend $12 to $16 million on a partial demolition and rebuild of the community center, which would help keep the 100-year old building serviceable for a period. But that option would do little to address the usability issues of the center, which was designed as a school building.
- It could spend between $24 and $30 million approximately on one of the three concepts developed by the consultants.
City Administrator Chris Engel told the attendees that the city and councilmembers would be listening to residents about their ideas for the future of the parks and recreation facilities as well as ideas for how to fund them. But, he noted, Merriam has an option for financing a project of this scale that’s not available to any other city in the state: A sales tax that would benefit from Merriam’s tops-in-Kansas “pull factor.” The pull factor, which is calculated by the state of Kansas, measures the amount of sales that are made in a city to city residents versus out-of-towners. Because Merriam is home so many car dealerships — not to mention IKEA, Home Depot and Hobby Lobby — its coffers are filled with sales tax receipts from people who live outside the city but make major purchases, like $50,000 vehicles, in Merriam.
Merriam currently has a 1/4 cent sales tax in place through the end of 2020, the proceeds of which help pay for maintenance of streets and infrastructure. Engel said the Merriam council could give voters the chance to approve a new 1/4 cent sales tax that would go into effect as soon as the existing one expires, and use the proceeds to pay off bonded debt incurred to build a new community center and aquatic center. With the high pull factor, only $360,000 of the $2,000,000 the tax would generate annually would actually be incurred by Merriam residents — the rest would be paid by non-residents buying things in the city. That $360,000 equates to about $32 per resident per year.
Engel said that while no decisions had been made at the council level — the council will review the work of the consultants and their recommendations at their Jan. 9 meeting — the aging facilities are no-longer cost effective to manage, and the city needs to make a move somewhere.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Engel said. “Should we do this? That’s up to you [the Merriam voters]. But doing nothing is not an option.”
A FAQ document prepared by the city on the issue is embedded below. The city is also updating a weekly blog on the proposals here: