Merriam committee recommends saving 1911 portion of Irene B. French Community Center

French center
The committee shared its recommendations for the French center on Wednesday.

After months of meetings and collecting data from the public, the committee exploring options for the future of the Irene B. French Community Center in Merriam announced Wednesday that residents want to preserve the 1911 portion of the facility and create an active, open space and downtown catalyst around the site.

Merriam residents listened to recommendations from the committee on the French center.

Initial cost estimates for this type of project are $3-4 million, depending on how much of the century-old building would be restored.

The committee’s purpose was to develop a cost-effective strategy for the future of the French center. The committee plans to prepare a report of its findings and recommendations to the city council later this summer.

A complete list of recommendations and initial estimated costs are:

  • Option A: Re-use building — $7,520,000. Concept layout below
Option A for future of Irene B. French Community Center
  • Option B (preferred by committee): Create open space and re-use 1911 portion of the building — $3,050,000 – $4,250,000. Concept layout below
Option B for future of Irene B. French Community Center
  • Option C: Demolish the entire French center and create open space — $2,500,000. Concept layout below
Option C for future of Irene B. French Community Center

A summary of the preferred recommendation, Option B, involves the following:

  • Save as much of the 1911 original building as structurally feasible
  • Vacate the building by June 2020 — when the new community center at Vavra Park is expected to be complete and open
  • Demolish the 1938, 1951 and 1989 additions to the building by fall 2020 if possible
  • Proceed to design phase with knowledgeable consultants, including structural assessment of 1911 building issues and detailed site and landscape plan
  • Keep residents apprised of budget and timetable issues

Once the new community center opens, building supplies and equipment will be moved from the French center to the new space. The city is working to make decisions for the French center by June 2020 so it won’t sit vacant and unused.

With the opening of the new community center on the horizon, Merriam is looking at what to do with the historic Irene B. French Community Center building.

Originally built in 1911 with multiple additions over the past century, the historic building was formerly the home of a few schools before the city bought it and converted it into the French center.

A study in 2015 found that it would cost anywhere between hundreds of thousands of dollars to $15 million to take next steps for the French center, including replacing, renovating, demolishing or simply maintaining the facility.

Vicki Noteis with Collins Noteis & Associates of Kansas City, Missouri

Consultant Vicki Noteis with Collins Noteis & Associates of Kansas City, Missouri, who shared at both the public meeting in April and on Wednesday about the condition of the French center and what’s financially at stake for the city, also shared other data collected over the past few months. A link to the full video is on the city’s YouTube channel.

Overall themes that emerged in the data collected from resident and stakeholder feedback include:

  • Create area for community gathering
  • Increase quality of life for residents
  • Include an education component
  • Do something that provides a strong sense of community
  • Make a decision that provides options for future if flood control happens
  • Be mindful of taxpayer dollars

Preliminary goals that have emerged include:

  • Find the greatest community value for the next 25-50 years
  • Minimize cost / maximize revenue
  • City keep property as an asset
  • Make the decision now
Staci Chivetta, committee chair

Committee chair Staci Chivetta, a candidate for the Ward 4 seat on the city council, said the committee’s underlying goal was to develop a clear, detailed and documented process and foster transparency with the public.

Noting the diversity of the committee in terms of age, gender, neighborhood and length of time with a Merriam address, Chivetta said she believes the group was able to draw on their differences and align their goals.

“Once we got feedback from the public at the first meeting, our ideas were all aligning with each other,” she said. “Putting this together, it was really interesting to see that we were all on the same page as a community for the most part.”