Merriam council officially adds new, $30 million combined community center and aquatics facility to possible options for parks and recreation future

Constructed in the early 1900s, the Irene B. French Community Center has limited useable space and costly maintenance issues.
Constructed in the early 1900s, the Irene B. French Community Center has limited useable space and costly maintenance issues.

By Jerry LaMartina

A plan that would have the city invest approximately $30 million in a new facility to replace the Irene B. French Community Center and the Merriam Aquatics Center is officially on the table for consideration as the city maps out its parks and recreation priorities for the coming years.

With unanimous approval at its Monday night meeting, the Merriam City Council formally acknowledged the completion of work on the new facility plan as an option that would be in the mix of consideration in the coming months. The next step is to create a plan to further educate Merriam residents about all three options before the city budget process starts in March, City Administrator Chris Engel said. The other two options call for upgrades to the existing Irene B. French Community Center. Though they would require a considerably smaller investment — between $5 million and $16 million — they would also provide limited usability and would be more expensive in maintenance costs.

Representatives from Confluence, PROS Consulting and SFS Architecture detailed the proposed third option, which would call for building a combined community and aquatics center on the site of the current pool facilities at an estimated cost of $30 million. It would take about 33 months to complete. The Executive Summary and the full Facilities Master Plan can be viewed on the city’s website here.

A group of about 100 Merriam residents got their first look at concepts for possible replacements for the community and aquatic centers on Dec. 13. All three proposals resulted from months of work among consultants, parks and recreation officials and the city administration.

Brian Garvey, an architect with SFS, said the third option’s design would enable people to “see almost all offerings when you walk in the lobby,” which would be large and well lit. It would have a 240-seat event space, meeting spaces, a café, an art gallery, a senior lounge, two classrooms that each could seat 25 and could be joined by removing a partition, a four-lane indoor swimming pool and an eight-lane outdoor pool.

The current community center has 33,000 square feet of available space, of which 13,500 square feet is available for programming. The third option proposes 65,000 square feet of available space and 49,000 square feet for programming.

The current facilities take in annual revenue of $282,000, require $1.1 million in expenditures and get $814,000 in city subsidies. The third-option single facility would take in an estimated $1.3 million in revenue, require expenditures of $2 million and get $679,000 in subsidies the first year.

A few residents expressed support for the plan during the meeting’s public-comments segment. But resident Sam Matier, a frequent presence at council proceedings, said he opposed it. He questioned whether a survey that had been conducted of 522 Merriam residents adequately represented the whole city’s views on building a new, single center.

Matier read aloud some opposition responses he’d gotten from other residents to a note he’d sent out asking their opinions on spending $30 million for a new, combined center.

“These are your constituents,” Matier told the council. “I think you should consider what they say. …You have to be financially responsible for this community.”

Mayor Ken Sissom said the survey met and exceeded national standards for statistically valid surveys.

“I have a lot of confidence in these results,” Sissom said. “I can tell you what’s not statistically significant: one individual comes up and says they went around their neighborhood and talked to seven people and they decided they were against it. And another thing: I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue, and other council members have, too. People come to talk to us because we are their elected representatives.”

Matier asked whether residents would get to vote on whether the city would issue bonds for the project.

“Or will this council do as they’ve done in the past and ‘charter out’ of it, and in so doing not let the people have the right to exercise their vote?” Matier said.

“We have no choice but to put it to a vote,” Sissom said. “The law requires it. Even if we didn’t want to (put a bond issue before voters), which isn’t the case, we’d have to do it.”

The city’s charter does give the council authority to override a state statute, and citizens have recourse through a petition process, City Attorney Nicole Proulx Aiken said after the meeting.

Sissom asked City Administrator Chris Engel whether he’d gotten a request from any council member to charter out regarding bond issuance. Engel said no. Sissom asked other council members whether they’d been asked to or had any interest in doing it. They said no.

“You talked about the term ‘oligarchy,’” Sissom said to Matier. “While you were standing there I looked it up. I’d like for you to look up maybe another term: it’s called representative democracy, because that’s what we do here. That’s what’s done in this country in every state, in every city. That’s how our country’s run … and that’s what gives us the ethical right and the legal right to make the decisions that we make. Now there isn’t anybody up here that doesn’t believe that the community should get the opportunity to weigh in on this in a public vote.”

“Good,” Matier said.

“As far as I’ve been told,” Sissom said, “we fully will be moving in that direction, not because it’s legal and it’s our only option, but because that’s our desire, as well. But what I don’t like is when people come up here and accuse us of not doing that just because we simply won’t promise to do it. As I’ve said before, our next process is to take this in to the budget process … because that’s the process we always do.”

Matier said he accepted “that this council has said they will not charter out—and I haven’t heard it before tonight—that the people of Merriam will get to vote on whether to issue bonds. That’s what I’ve heard tonight.”