In Merriam, candidates cite floodplain in historic downtown as among biggest challenges facing city

Merriam Mayor Ken Sissom is seeking a third term in office.
Merriam Mayor Ken Sissom is seeking a third term in office.

The Turkey Creek floodplain continues to pose one of the biggest challenges to the revitalization of downtown Merriam, candidates running for city office said during a forum Wednesday.

The event, hosted by the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and the Shawnee Mission Post, was held at the Irene B. French Community Center, a building whose future figures prominently into the issues the city will have to address in the coming years. With voters’ approval of a new, $30 million community and aquatic center on the Varva Memorial Park grounds, demand for the French Center’s facilities will effectively dry up. Water issues in its lowest level tied to its proximity to Turkey Creek will make maintenance of the building, which opened in the early 1900s as a school, extremely expensive.

The participants — incumbent Mayor Ken Sissom, Ward 1 incumbent Scott Diebold and challenger Dennis Miles, Ward 2 challenger Patty Newkirk, Ward 3 incumbent Christine Evans Hands, Ward 4 incumbent Cheryl Moore and challenger David Neal — were largely in consensus that at least part of the French Center would need to be pulled down. But whether part of the existing structure should be allowed to remain and serve some yet-to-be identified purpose remains to be seen.

David Neal, an engineer by training, said he’d conducted an assessment of the facility, and didn’t believe the issues with the center were as bad as many had claimed. He suggested the original part of the building could be turned into a co-work space. Miles, on the other hand, said the city shouldn’t invest “another dime” in the French Center, and should look to other uses for the land. Newkirk said she was very excited about the idea of building an amphitheater on the site that would tie in to the nearby Merriam Marketplace.

Current members of the council, however, stressed that there needed to be a deliberate process to explore how the French Center and its land might be repurposed.

“I say we make a good decision,” said Moore, indicating that it was premature to plan for uses of the space without a good deal of research and input. Diebold said it was crucial that whatever happens with the site “preserves the history of this place.”

Turkey Creek flooding also poses a major barrier to bringing new businesses to the historic downtown along Merriam Drive, the candidates agreed.

Sissom indicated that it may be time for the city to consider incentivizing businesses to locate in the area as it did in the 1990s. Neal said he wanted to push the Army Corp of Engineers to address the flooding issue — though Sissom said the city had made overtures to the corps in the past and that it had proven difficult to get their attention.

In the contested Ward 1 race, Miles said he was driven to challenge Diebold because he was dissatisfied with Diebold’s vote to require that trash cans be screened. Diebold countered that he had made the vote two years ago because he wasn’t comfortable with the language in the ordinance, but that he had worked closely with Ward 1 residents to ensure they complied with city law.

In Ward 4, Neal said he believed the city would benefit from his background, but acknowledged that he had no issues with Moore’s record in office. Moore said her focus would be on keeping the positive momentum the city has seen in recent years.

Sissom said in his closing remarks that his long tenure with the city — he was Merriam’s chief of police before become mayor eight years ago — would be an asset as Merriam moved through the process of bringing the community center project to fruition. He said the public knows almost nothing about his challenger, Eric Jackson, who did not participate in the forum.

“I’m running against someone who preaches transparency,” Sissom said, “but all we know about him is that he works as a manager in the federal government.”

Ward 2 incumbent Brian Knaff did not participate in the forum, either. Evans Hands is running unopposed.