With new community center coming, Merriam leaders talk future of Irene B. French facility

While Merriam is in the final stages of design for its new community center at Vavra Park, city leaders began talks on the future of the Irene B. French Community Center.

Mayor Ken Sissom and City Administrator Chris Engel asked councilmembers on Monday for input on how the city should proceed with formalizing plans for the historic building at 5701 Merriam Drive.

In light of some complaints from residents over the past several weeks on the process of designing and building the new community center, many councilmembers shared their hopes to avoid frustrations during the process of planning for the future of the French Center.

The city will form a committee to look at the issue, Engel said. That committee, perhaps an ad hoc group, could be comprised of representatives from residents, councilmembers, city staff and the Merriam Downtown Partnership.

Engel and councilmembers all agreed that residents must be “heavily” involved in the process by contributing on the committee.

“One of the things, I will tell you, that we promised during the sales tax initiative is that it would be a public conversation,” Engel said, “so it could be led, and the decisions be made, in a small group, but staff is going to recommend that this needs to roll out to the public.”

Councilmembers stressed the importance of involving the public, but member Nancy Hupp warned that interested residents must know the level of commitment needed on the committee before they request to join.

Councilmember Al Frisby said he wants Anna Slocum, parks and recreation director, to sit on the committee because of her institutional knowledge of the Irene B. French Community Center.

The number of members on the committee, as well as how many representatives from which stakeholder groups, is not yet determined. Hupp said she would like to have at least 10 members on the committee.

Secondly, city leaders will formalize the role of staff in the process and involvement on the committee. Engel said he will staff the committee but wants the council to formalize his role as a member.

Mayor Ken Sissom and other councilmembers suggested that city staff are technical experts on the Irene B. French Community Center and would best serve the committee in that capacity.

Thirdly, city leaders will decide how to use the budgeted $30,000 to facilitate the process. Engel said the council could use it to hire a third-party consultant who could act as a facilitator or a technician. Engel suggested the city should probably first hire a facilitator to provide the right level of guidance. A technician may cost more than what the city needs at the beginning of the project.

Finally, the city will formalize a “feedback loop” for the process of sharing information, recommendations and solutions. In the past, the city staff has communicated to the committee, then to the public and then to the council, Engel said. The mayor suggested informing the council first because it must determine if the plan is financially viable or if it would involve a tax increase.

Nonetheless, all councilmembers stressed that the public must be kept informed throughout the entire process, via email, monthly updates, open houses, public meetings and advertisements in local news outlets.

The $30,000 for the project kicks in January 2019. Staff will vacate the building in 2020, upon completion of the new community center, so councilmembers must have a “ballpark figure” of budget costs by July 2019 for the building.

Engel said he hopes the city can form a committee in October.