Prairie Village council approves concept study of Harmon Park renovations that could include amphitheater

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The Harmon Park hill draws thousands of people for the annual Jazz Festival in Prairie Village. Now, the city will be looking into the possibility of building more permanent infrastructure for taking in performances on the site.

The Prairie Village City Council on Monday approved the hiring of BBN Architects to conduct a concept study for a series of projects at Harmon Park that had tentatively been identified in the city’s 2009 Parks & Recreation Master Plan — though a number of councilmembers urged caution as the governing body started exploring the improvements.

Among the key components of the study will be looking into the construction of amphitheater infrastructure on the hill below the main Harmon Park shelter. The area that currently houses the city’s skate park could be redeveloped in part or in whole as a stage. Additionally, BBN will be looking at ideas for expanding playground space and walking trails in the park.

The council’s vote to approve spending $50,000 from the economic development fund for the study comes a year after Ward 4’s Brooke Morehead floated the idea of revamping part of Harmon Park in the model of Linden Square in Gladstone, which spent around $1 million to build a permanent stage and seating infrastructure at a park off its downtown.

Morehead, who has led an ad hoc committee’s early discussions on the idea for the past several months, characterized the project as an opportunity to create a destination unique to the area. She suggested that the stage and amphitheater would be valuable not only as the site for the annual Jazz Festival — the city currently pays around $15,000 each year for the rental of temporary stage equipment — but as a spot for local groups, like bands from Shawnee Mission East or dance troupes, to put on performances.

“I think we need to start thinking differently than the same old northeast Johnson County little city, and think beyond who we are today to where we want to be in the next 10 or 20 years,” she said. “I think we owe it to our residents to make something beautiful.”

She argued that with much of the current infrastructure in the park in decay, the city should be ready to replace aging shelters or playground equipment with ideas that are part of a cohesive plan when the time comes.

But Morehead’s enthusiasm for the project received tempered responses from some of her council peers, who suggested that while they were supportive of investing in the study, they were cautious about giving residents the impression that any of the projects being explored were a done deal.

“The first I had heard anybody express the desire for an amphitheater was when Brooke brought this idea forward,” said Ward 3’s Eric Mikkelson, who noted he was concerned about the disappearance of any green space in the park. “And there may be an overwhelming amount of support for it in Prairie Village — or not. I don’t pretend to know the answer to that. But I just haven’t seen evidence of that yet for a multimillion dollar development of this park.”

Mayor Laura Wassmer struck a similar tone, noting that after the city commissioned a study to explore the construction of a community center and natatorium, many residents had been disappointed when the council determined the price tag for the project was far higher than they could stomach.

“We got everybody really excited about it. The community thought we were definitely going to have a community center and they thought we were going to have an aquatic center because we were doing this study and we approved the study and we started asking people for their input,” Wassmer said. “Just because we’re asking, just because we’re exploring, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to end up with the plan immediately. And it may not even happen.”

An early rendering of the amphitheater concept from the 2009 Parks & Recreation Master Plan.
An early rendering of the amphitheater concept from the 2009 Parks & Recreation Master Plan.