After hours of testimony by a group of residents hoping for a delay, the Merriam council on a 5-3 vote Monday approved the final design for the new $36.6 million community center.
Dissenting votes came from councilmembers Al Frisby, David Neal and Bob Pape.
The meeting was marked by three hours of intense and occasionally heated comments from Merriam residents, many of whom had spoken during past council meetings against the outdoor aquatic design and the city’s overall process.
Solidifying the project design, revised to accommodate more outdoor aquatic space for an additional $1.6 million, was the first of four decisions the council made on the new community center Monday evening.
In a final statement before the vote on project design, city administrator Chris Engel told the council that the proposed community center is a “great facility” that will be good for “the whole community.” That design, he added, was built on a multi-year public process and conversation.
Final design of the community center included slight adjustments from previously released layouts, including an additional corridor in the lower level for easier access between the restrooms and the outdoor pool.
The city and design team have released a video showing 3D renderings of the facility as approved:
Merriam Concerned Citizens continue criticisms of project
Residents who spoke against the project design — many of whom identified themselves as members of the Merriam Concerned Citizens group that initiated petitions earlier this month to delay the community center construction — raised the same or similar concerns from the past two months.
These concerns include the fact that the outdoor aquatics portion of the center is smaller than the previous Merriam Aquatic Center at Vavra Park, allowing Johnson County Library to rebuild its Antioch Library on site, and a perceived lack of transparency in the process, especially in the past several months.
“I feel like if you were to halt this project and listen to what your community is telling you that they don’t like, I think you could possibly make everybody happy. You could… let people choose what they want because they are telling you what they don’t want now,” said one speaker.
Councilmember Chris Evans Hands said it’s “really sad that we don’t all share the exact same vision, but that’s pretty impossible with the number of people we have.”
Other residents spoke against allowing the Antioch Library to relocate to the site — one said adding the library was a “bomb dive” — as well as the use of $6.6 million of the city’s tax increment financing funds to build a parking garage.
A few members of the public spoke in favor of the project design and urged councilmembers to move forward with the project, including former Merriam councilmember Todd Boyer.
“This has been a years-long process and community led from the beginning. The community has vetted and ultimately decided on key elements to stay and go tonight,” Boyer said. “I’m asking you to affirm the hundreds of individuals who have already voiced their opinions and been involved in the process.”
Dissenting councilmembers lobby for delay on vote
Councilmember Neal again raised many concerns before voting. He thinks the new outdoor pool will fail to be the “summer outdoor pool experience” to which Merriam residents are accustomed at the Merriam Aquatic Center.
“Pausing for a month to figure some of this stuff out seems to be the appropriate thing to do for our residents,” Neal said.
Councilmember Frisby cited his own concerns, including that he thinks the city has failed in certain processes. He believes in compromise, but city leaders did not make enough changes to the outdoor pool design to meet residents’ requests, he added.
Councilmember Nancy Hupp said the city and residents have “an opportunity here to have so much more than we’ve had in the past.”
“We’re never going to get it perfect,” Hupp said. “There is not perfect; there’s making it the very best that we can to serve as many people as we can with the financial responsibility.”
Some members of the public accused Merriam leaders of doing a “bait and switch” on residents. Councilmember Pape said the city has not done enough to address resident concerns, but keeping the Merriam Aquatic Center and doing repairs instead of building new could also look like a “bait and switch” tactic.
Councilmember Scott Diebold said city leaders have been listening to residents for years on the project. The city also had no design to show before the vote because the city declined to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars designing a project the public could ultimately reject, he added.
The council on a 7-1 vote approved the TIF project plan, which allocates $6.6 million from the city’s I-35 TIF District to fund the parking structure on the new community center site. Councilmember Neal cast the single dissenting vote.
The council unanimously approved the preliminary development agreement and rezoning of the lot on Vavra Park from single-family residential to planned unit development, as well as the first bid package with McCarthy Building Companies Inc.
Merriam now moves into the construction phase, beginning in October with demolition of the Merriam Aquatic Center and grading of the site.