At open house, some Merriam residents air concerns with community center plans, process

Merriam residents voiced concerns and comments on the new community center at an open house Monday, July 30.

With Merriam in the final stages of design for its new community center, some residents at the city’s open house Monday evening expressed disappointed and frustration with Merriam’s decision to include the Johnson County Library’s Antioch branch as well as a parking garage on the new site.

Meredith Hauck, assistant city administrator, provided details on the new community center and took questions and concerns from Merriam residents during an open house Monday, July 30.

“We’re giving up a lot of land on our site,” said Suzanne Downey, a Merriam resident who sits on the park board.

Meredith Hauck, assistant city administrator, said the library relocating to the new community center campus is “not a done deal” because the county is still negotiating plans.

Downey said she was “not impressed with the whole process,” saying that Merriam voters agreed on a master plan that was different from what residents saw Monday evening at the open house. She suggested removing the library and parking structure from the site and making the outdoor pool bigger.

“I don’t understand why you would take away such an awesome facility,” she said after the open house. “It’s a big loss from what we’ve had. I don’t think people would have voted for this if they had known what they were getting in the end.”

Other residents said they wanted a bigger pool area with more outdoor amenities such as a high dive, slides and baby pool.

One Merriam resident had concerns that the new community center campus lacked adequate outdoor play space for children. Hauck said the design committee is working on details to maximize outdoor areas to include lawn games such as giant Jenga as well as the possibility of benches, picnic tables and reading areas that would complement the Johnson County Library Antioch branch’s space.

Hauck said the playground equipment at Vavra Park will be moved to Waterfall Park at 5191 Merriam Drive. The city also has a long-range plan to add a playground back to the community center campus after construction is complete.

Responding to some of the issues brought up by residents Monday, Hauck issued the following comment:

The goal of this project from the beginning has been more than recreation – it’s about building community. The addition of the library gives our residents an opportunity to have easy access to both facilities, and the parking structure not only provides close and convenient parking but helps preserve green space throughout the site.

A common question I get is if the community center would be bigger or if there would be more amenities if the library or parking garage were not located on the site. The answer is no. Vavra Park has a steep slope and a rock shelf located near the surface. The building was always going to be located were it is on the site because of the existing excavation where the current aquatic center is and the connections required with Slater and IKEA Way. The library and parking garage are being placed on areas of the site that would have been open space or a parking lot, and money from the community center project is not being used to pay for either. The City is not paying for the library co-location – this would be funded by Johnson County Libraries, and the parking structure will be paid for using TIF funds.

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for 8:30 a.m. Aug. 30. Hauck said city staff will decommission Vavra Park and the Merriam Aquatic Center in September. Demolition and grading will start at the beginning of October, and construction of the community center is slated to begin next spring.

Merriam anticipates a completion date of July 2020. Hauck said the city is trying to coordinate efforts with the library to construct the new branch at the same time as the community center, to minimize the impact of construction.

The open house follows the council’s decision to increase the $30 million budget for the new community and aquatic center by an additional $1.6 million. After the city received resident complaints on the size and features of the outdoor aquatics, councilmembers conducted a lengthy work session on the outdoor pool design earlier this month, compromising on a new design.

Merriam hosted a big reveal of the outdoor concepts for the community center at an open house in June.

Hauck said the new community center will be open at least 110 hours a week and offer more programs than the existing center. A resident said the new community center will provide additional revenue for the city because it will offer more programs and the possibility of renting the banquet hall and other areas.

Hauck said residents also have the opportunity to give feedback at the Sept. 24 council meeting, during which the council will likely discuss plans for the community center.