Merriam City Council candidates on the issues: the Irene B. French Community Center and revitalizing downtown Merriam

Jay Senter - October 31, 2017 11:36 am

Merriam_Center_Irene

Based on input from our readers, we asked the candidates running for Merriam City Council to respond to three questions about issues facing the city. Here are their responses:

Future of the Irene B. French Community Center

Merriam voters recently approved the measure to fund a new $30 million community and aquatics center. With a new facility coming, how should the city plan for what to do with the existing Irene B. French Community Center?

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Ward 1

Scott Diebold (incumbent)
What needs to be done with the existing community center, presents many questions that need to be answered, and the most important question is what is the best use of our tax dollars? The second most important question, in my opinion, is how do we preserve the history of this site? Whether there is a complete or partial tear down of the existing building, we must consider the impact this site has had on our community. We need to let the citizens have a voice, as well as looking at the information provided by the engineering professionals, so the best decision can be made. Ultimately, we need to make a good financial decision.

Dennis Miles
Did not respond.

Ward 2

Brian Knaff (incumbent)
Did not respond.

Patty Newkirk
I believe that the city should get input from Merriam citizens as to ideas of what citizens would like to see happen to the original Community Center. The community has deep ties to the Irene B. French Community Center, and community input is vital. Then the city should explore the impacts and benefits of the top one or two ideas. An idea that I have heard much support for, and that I hope would be a top idea of consensus, would be to put an amphitheater on the site, especially to showcase performances from our very talented local violin instructor. I have quite a few things I would like to see encompassed in such a plan for this site. I would want it to keep a part of the historic Irene B. French building, perhaps the oldest portion of the building, as sort of a cornerstone of the amphitheater itself, to blend the historic with the new.

It could then combine with the Farmers Market across the street, and could accommodate bringing the Turkey Creek Festival back. We could make part of the area around it into park and playground space – Merriam is actually short of park space in relation to its population. There could be playground equipment, and places for picnics, and entertainment to be enjoyed from the amphitheater.

Ward 4

Cheryl Moore (incumbent)
The City of Merriam will use the existing Irene B. French Community Center for approximately two years while the new community center is under construction. When planning the next steps for the existing community center, public input will be an important part of the process. The process will also include determining the scope of the City’s options.

At the present time, nothing has been determined and a process has not yet been established. I will work to ensure a good decision is made that respects the historic significance of the building.

David Neal
I believe that existing Irene B. French Community Center complex that includes Merriam’s early school built in 1911 could potentially be re-purposed as a facility more appropriate for its educational design without needing to make extensive Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changes. Finding an innovative alternative use, possibly through the formation of a non-profit public/private entity should be considered before a quick decision is taken to demolish the Irene B. French Center (as some council members privately favor).

For example, changes in the way new businesses operate in the emerging digital economy are creating the need for flexible ‘coworker spaces’ to be used as part-time business locations and meeting spaces for companies that primarily use virtual offices for employees but need places to congregate once or twice a week for staff or client meetings. Part of the facility could house a ‘maker’s space’ (with shared equipment like 3D printers for building prototypes of products, etc.) as well. A northern Johnson County location convenient to I-35 would add to its desirability.

As a licensed Johnson County Class A General (commercial and residential) Contractor, based on my preliminary on-site evaluation of the existing Irene B. French Community Center building, the water problems experienced (including problems in the newer 1950s portion) may be correctable at a much lower cost than some numbers I have seen. If the foundation water influx can be corrected economically (which I believe can be done), then the high cost cited to move the mechanical systems in order to save the older portions of the building will be unnecessary.

The Irene B. French Community Center building has value, both financially and to our city’s history. The wider community should also be involved in exploring other re-purposing ideas. We owe it to Merriam to seriously consider re-purposing alternatives.

Revitalizing downtown Merriam

What steps should the city be taking to bring new businesses and visitors to Merriam’s historic downtown?

Ward 1

Scott Diebold (incumbent)
Bringing new business to downtown is a very difficult situation due to the area being in the floodplain as a result of its proximity to Turkey Creek. I believe it is important that we invest in the existing businesses, doing what we can to help them maintain their properties.

As for the second part of the question, how do we bring visitors to downtown, I believe the answer to this question will come from the decisions made on the existing community center site. Whether there is still a building, park space, or whatever decision is made, it needs to provide an area that is visitor and family friendly. The area needs to provide spaces that can host outdoor community events. This area could allow our parks and recreation department to provide more activities for our citizens, particularly our kids, and their pets.

Ward 2

Patty Newkirk
A large part of this answer is encompassed in my answer above – I would like to see planning and resources go into what will go on the site of the old Community Center. I believe that honoring the historic significance of the Irene B. French Building, and adding to it with something that will contribute to the livelihood of downtown Merriam, such as an Amphitheatre, would be a great benefit to bringing visitors and economic growth to the area. I think this would provide a great draw for residents, and for those outside Merriam to come and to increase vitality and revenue from the downtown area.

Ward 4

Cheryl Moore (incumbent)
Bringing more visitors to historic downtown involves continuing to expand the Farmers’ Market draw through effective programming. In addition, continuing to enhance park amenities such as improvements at the Waterfall Park soccer practice field also attracts new visitors. Future plans at Waterfall Park include adding a park shelter and repurposing play equipment currently at the Lucyann C Vavra Memorial Park.

Regarding bringing in new businesses to Merriam’s historic downtown, as long as the significant majority of historic downtown Merriam is in the flood plain, major changes to downtown businesses is not realistic in the near future. This initiative lies at the Federal level through the Core of Engineers.

The City of Merriam will provide matching funds once the project moves forward – today the total cost of the improvement (Federal and local dollars combined) is estimated to be nearly $40,000,000.

Merriam City Council and staff have discussed the possibility of initiating a grant program for historic downtown business similar to the exterior home improvement grant program for homeowners. I will work to develop initiatives such as these to support Merriam businesses and enhance historic downtown vitality.

David Neal
A community like Merriam can get lost in the urban sprawl of Johnson County. Merriam’s historic heart developed along Turkey Creek. The stalled Turkey Creek flood control project prevents its economic resurgence.

Because the commercial buildings lie in the Turkey Creek flood plain, owners are prohibited from altering or expanding their businesses. This single factor is holding back the economic re-development of Merriam’s heart. Until this issue is resolved, there is little that can be done to allow the downtown to reach its potential.

Since Merriam is landlocked and doesn’t have undeveloped tracts to develop, our city leaders need to take more seriously the completion of the Turkey Creek flood control project. While I understand that the planned flood control project involves funding from several sources including the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers over which the Merriam City Council has no direct decision making authority, I believe that the City Council could become more vocal in advocating for the flood control project to move off dead center.

Increasing our communications directed at the county level, state level, and with our federal legislators to prioritize completion of this critical infrastructure project is clearly something that we can and should do. The squeaky wheel often gets the most grease.

If a lack of action continues then Merriam should potentially look at other ways to fund the flood control project. In the mean time, The City Council needs to encourage preservation of the buildings in downtown Merriam, and improve amenities and infrastructure while waiting for flood control. Re-purposing the historic Irene B. French Center is one component of this strategy.

If elected, I will work tirelessly to press for Corp of Engineers prioritization of the federal work so our downtown business community can re-establish Merriam’s historical small town identity.

Biggest challenges facing the city

What’s the biggest challenge facing Merriam today, and what will you do over the next four years to address it?

Ward 1

Scott Diebold (incumbent)
Merriam has invested a lot of time and money in our commercial sectors, and I would like to see this continue. However, we cannot forget our neighborhoods, and the needs of our citizens. We need to continue to expand the plan to create connectivity and safety in our neighborhoods. This can be done by improving sidewalks or adding them where needed, and continuing to update street lights. I am in favor of giving or citizens incentives to help them improve their homes and properties. We also need to maintain and expand the outstanding services provided by the city. I plan to promote any program that gives back to the citizens when it comes to the expenditure of tax dollars.

Ward 2

Patty Newkirk
Merriam is an older city, and I believe a real challenge it faces is how to meet the needs of two very distinct populations: a large area with older homes and older residents, but also a small area with newer homes and younger residents. The challenge of the older homes/aging housing stock is that they become more and more difficult to keep up to code, and older residents have a different set of needs than younger residents – the city must do a good job for BOTH sets of residents. But an additional challenge is that as older residents move out of houses into care facilities and such, often their homes are turned into rental properties. Then the challenge becomes making an ever-increasing population of renters feel a part of the community in Merriam.

To address the challenge, I would like to expand on a program Merriam has already started that will allow residents to apply for money to improve their homes and address possible code violations. I would like to see this program expanded, and perhaps bring on other similar programs geared particularly toward helping elderly residents with their homes, to make modifications and repairs. I would also like to promote more community building activities geared toward making renters feel a part of the community here in Merriam.

Ward 4

Cheryl Moore (incumbent)
I will work to have smart redevelopment that balances resident amenities and services with development. A current example is the K-Mart property. Merriam City Council and staff will work to ensure Merriam’s retail and restaurant options are expanded and this redevelopment is a source of pride to our community.

I will also continue to work to enhance resident services and amenities. I am proud to have championed Merriam’s annual limb pickup – this service is not in response to storm damage but is an annual service each March similar to large item pickup. Additional examples of new services include grants for exterior home improvements, grants for block parties, and grants for island plantings.

Smart redevelopment combined with enhanced resident services and amenities will ensure Merriam continues to be a healthy and vibrant community.

David Neal
Other than completion of the Turkey Creek flood control project which I have discussed in another answer, I think that the biggest challenge facing Merriam in the near term may actually be coming from outside of Merriam. Merriam is in a good place financially and should be able to stay there if the ‘rules’ are not changed from higher authorities in Topeka.

In recent years, Governor Brownback and the leadership in the Kansas Legislature have been working to undermine local control for policy that properly should reside with local governments. This includes policy areas such as local property taxation, state overrides of local criminal statutes, and state re-direction of local sales tax collections.

One of the potential future state legislative actions that would have a major negative impact on the city’s finances is a recurring proposal to change the way sales taxes on automobiles are collected in terms of which jurisdiction receives the proceeds. Under consideration is a state change that would send the municipal sales taxes collected from vehicle sales at an auto dealership location to the jurisdiction where the buyer lives rather than where the dealership is actually located.

This change – or any other change to the implementation of sales taxes – would have profoundly negative implications for our city since a huge proportion of city sales tax revenue in Merriam is raised from auto sales. Most cars sold in Merriam are purchased by residents of other cities, so all that revenue would be lost if the Kansas Legislature changes this basic way that sales tax works in the case of vehicle sales.

Merriam employs lobbyists to monitor the Kansas Legislature. City Council members also need to be willing to actively represent the interests of the city before the Kansas Legislature if necessary. I will do so.

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