Six years after killing idea, Prairie Village council looking again at prospect of partnership for new community center

Prairie Village leaders have met with YMCA of Greater Kansas City Executives in recent weeks to discuss the possibility of partnering on a new community center in the city.

In 2013, after years of preliminary investigation, Prairie Village officials scuttled the idea of moving ahead with a project that would bring a new community center and natatorium to the grounds near city hall, citing high costs and lack of serious commitment from potential partners.

Six years later, the city council thinks it’s time to give the idea a fresh look.

Mayor Eric Mikkelson argued that a number of factors had combined to provide a rare window of opportunity for a project.

Mayor Eric Mikkelson on Monday reported that he and a small group of city officials had held two preliminary meetings in recent weeks with representatives of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City to discuss the possibility of partnering on a project to bring a modern community center and indoor pool to Prairie Village. The Paul Henson YMCA on 79th Street adjacent to Harmon Park has fallen into disrepair, and YMCA leaders are interested in working with the city on a facility to replace it, City Administrator Wes Jordan told the council.

Mikkelson said that the YMCA’s interest combined with the need to update Prairie Village’s city aquatics facilities provided a window of opportunity for the idea.

“[A number of factors] all suggest that if we were going to do something like this in the next decade, this might be the best time to do it, or coming up pretty soon, so we can cooperate with the Y because they’re probably going to need to do something pretty soon as well,” Mikkelson said.

Councilmembers Brooke Morehead and Sheila Myers, in whose ward the YMCA sits, were part of the preliminary meetings. Both indicated that they heard from many residents who have asked about what, if anything, could be done to spur the redevelopment of the current Y facilities. Myers noted that respondents in the community survey the city conducted last year frequently cited the development of a community center as the one new community amenity they’d like to see. Morehead said she believed people were looking for the city to take action on the issue, though not necessarily to bear the full financial burden.

“I think they’re looking to the city for leadership on this,” Morehead said. “I don’t know that they’re looking for us to carry the water, but I think they’re looking for us to be creative in a partnership, maybe similar to what we did with Meadowbrook.”

A Shawnee Mission School District official was part of the preliminary discussions as well, but Mikkelson reported that there didn’t appear to be great interest in the district’s participation on a project at this point, though Mikkelson said the city would continue to keep the district involved in discussions.

Costs of potential project will be under scrutiny

Council members on Monday cast an informal vote to bring discussion of a potential partnership on a community center project back to a committee of the whole meeting in the near future. City staff will work with YMCA officials and others to gather more information on the idea ahead of that discussion.

During Monday’s meeting, members of the governing body pointed to the advancement of community center project discussions in Shawnee and Merriam as evidence of the demand for such facilities.

However, those cities have tax bases that make financing such a project easier than would be possible in Prairie Village. Shawnee has a population of 65,000, about three times as large as Prairie Village. Shawnee projects costs for its proposed community center would be about $38 million. Shawnee residents will vote this spring in a mail-in ballot election on whether to raise property taxes to pay for the project. The tax increase would equate to about $7.36 more per month for the owner of an average Shawnee home.

And while, by population, Prairie Village is much larger than Merriam, Merriam has extensive high-ticket retail — including car dealerships and IKEA — that provide revenue from sales tax that Prairie Village can’t match. Merriam’s $32.5 million new community and aquatics center is under construction and will open in summer 2020.

Still, Prairie Village officials said there could be creative ways to split the costs of a project. Mikkelson noted that the Y had a history of successful partnership with cities on such centers and that Prairie Village would not have to “reinvent the wheel” in working with them.

Price tag, lack of interest from partners scuttled 2013 plan

A rendering from the 2013 feasibility study the city commissioned with the school district and county parks department.

Prairie Village, the Shawnee Mission School District and the Johnson County Park and Recreation District teamed up to hire a consultant about decade ago to look at the feasibility of a community center that would include a 1,500 seat competitive aquatics center. But the $45 million price tag the consultant put on that facility was too much for the city to even consider, particularly after the partner organizations indicated that they weren’t prepared to contribute significant financing to the project. Prairie Village spent about $36,000 on that feasibility study. The parks district and school district contributed about $10,000 each.

“We were hearing, ‘We’re ready, we’ll contribute’ from our partners,” said then-Councilmember Ruth Hopkins of the discussions with the school district and the parks department at the time. “And when it came time to get serious, they weren’t ready. They were offering shiny pennies and that was all. It wasn’t enough.”

The Prairie Village council voted in March 2013 to stop actively pursuing the idea.

With the prospect of a high-end natatorium in Prairie Village gone, the school district moved ahead with a $27.8 million competition-level aquatics facility at City Center in Lenexa. That facility is scheduled to open later this year.