Merriam residents discuss future of historic Irene B. French Community Center

Merriam residents and city leaders on Monday discussed the future of the Irene B. French Community Center.

Merriam residents want to preserve the history of the Irene B. French Community Center. But what exactly that looks like for the future remains to be seen.

Now that construction of the city’s new community center at Vavra Park is underway, the city of Merriam and residents are turning their attention to the current facility at 5701 Merriam Drive. The city formed a committee of residents, business owners and city leaders to lead discussions and look into options for the building’s future.

The Irene B. French Community Center building was first built in 1911.

Originally built in 1911 with multiple additions over the past century, the historic building was formerly the home of a few schools, including Johnson County Community College and Kansas City Christian School, before the city bought it and converted it into the French center.

At a public meeting Monday evening, residents first heard from consultant Vicki Noteis with Collins Noteis & Associates of Kansas City, Mo., on the condition of the facility and what’s financially at stake depending on the route the city takes.

Vicki Noteis with Collins Noteis & Associates

“This is a big part of Merriam history; people have a lot of positive sentiment about the school itself,” Noteis said, noting that if Merriam retains ownership of the facility, it will cost anywhere between hundreds of thousands of dollars to $15 million to take next steps, including replacing, repairing, demolishing or simply maintaining the facility. “This is a complicated project; this isn’t simple. We appreciate the time people are putting into this and thinking about it.”

Residents participated in a dot poll, marking images of activities and components they would like to see for the facility. They also broke into groups to discuss their ideas and hear from one another.

Merriam residents participated in a dot poll Monday night to consider options for the site of the Irene B. French Community Center.

Here are some of the themes that came out of Monday night’s discussions:

  • All groups of residents said they wanted to preserve the history of the century-old building in some way, but most groups acknowledged that this could be the building itself or simply reusing materials, such as making a historic marker or keeping the cornerstone.
  • Many Merriam residents don’t want new taxes to repair, replace, demolish or otherwise make changes to the French Center.
  • Some residents expressed interest in creating multi-use open spaces such as gardens, multi-generational playgrounds or dog park.
  • Residents want to find ways to bring children and families into the area.
  • There was a general sentiment that the French Center should remain city property and, if possible, be kept open to the public — some residents agreed that this could mean no residential or commercial places on site.
  • Many saw the idea of maintaining the original 1911 portion of the building as very desirable; perhaps the shell of the building could be used as an amphitheater, feature an art gallery or other similar purpose.

The consultants will analyze information collected last night and use it to guide the discussion at future committee meetings. The next public meeting on the French center is June 26.