Merriam takes case for consideration of multi-million dollar investment in new community and aquatic center to the public

City Administrator Chris Engel presented an overview of the proposals before the city regarding the future of park and recreation facilities.
City Administrator Chris Engel presented an overview of the proposals before the city regarding the future of park and recreation facilities.

If you missed Merriam’s community meeting Tuesday on the future of the city’s parks and recreation facilities, don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of opportunities in the coming months to hear about the dilemma the city faces with its aging community center and pool infrastructure, and why officials are considering a new $25 to $30 million facility to replace them.

Stressing that it was imperative for Merriam residents to fully understand the situation and the proposal before deciding whether or not to approve financing for the project, which would likely come from a 1/4-cent sales tax that would have to be approved by Merriam voters, City Administrator Chris Engel said city hall would be investing a good deal of time and energy in communication with residents.

“You’re going to see us outside the Hen House on Saturday, you’re going to see us out at Turkey Creek,” Engel said.

Tuesday’s meeting, which brought together members of the Merriam City Council, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and the Parks Facilities Steering Committee, was the first community forum on the issue since the steering committee recommended that the city take the “band-aid” option of only investing $4 to $6 million in repairs to the existing facilities off the table.

At the meeting, which about four dozen Merriam residents attended, Engel laid out the rationale for considering the substantial expense of a new joint community and aquatic center. The city is currently investing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep the Irene B. French Community Center functional. But the layout of the former school building, which was completed in 1911, makes it difficult to use for many modern community center functions. Its mounting maintenance issues are only likely to get more expensive in coming years.

A new facility would be both more cost effective to operate, and allow for expanded uses — meeting and game rooms, a fitness center, event spaces, a senior lounge — that can’t all be accommodated in the Irene B. French building, Engel said. Mayor Ken Sissom echoed that notion, pointing to modern community centers in Olathe and Mission as examples of what Merriam could have.

“That’s what we’re trying to provide here, is a place for families to go, and recreate, places for them to meet,” Sissom said. “We have a facility here, but it’s falling apart. It doesn’t even meet the needs [of a community center]…because of the way it was designed.”

Engel argued that the city could consider passing a bond issue that would be paid off with a 1/4 cent sales tax to fund the project. That measure would essentially replace a 1/4 cent sales tax already in effect in Merriam, used to pay for street and infrastructure maintenance, that will sunset in 2020.

Because of the city’s remarkably strong pull factor — a measure of how much of its sales tax proceeds come from city residents versus out-of-towners — putting a 1/4 cent sales tax on the books to pay for the community center project would not put an undue financial burden on Merriam households, Engel said. With the presence of several car dealerships in the city limits, Merriam residents’ spending only accounts for about 18 percent of sales tax revenues. Of the approximately $2 million that would be generated by a new 1/4 cent sales tax each year, Merriam residents would pay approximately $360,000. That amounts to about $32 per resident.

Among the questions raised by residents at Tuesday’s meeting was what the city would do with the Irene B. French property should it ultimately move forward with a joint community and aquatic center on the site of the current pool. Engel said he anticipated the city would continue to maintain the site as some kind of community asset, though it was difficult to say at this point what that would be. With the surrounding downtown shops and the presence of the Merriam Marketplace across the street, the French site has strategic value to the city — and survey results from city residents suggest there is support for keeping it as city property.

“They don’t want it to be a car lot, they don’t want it to be a church,” he said. “They want it to be still a city amenity. I would argue that with our farmers market across the street, there is synergy to be had here.”

Merriam has compiled extensive background data and information on the proposals and status of its deliberations on a special website, MPRFacilities.org.