Shawnee City Council candidates on the issues: Aftermath of Shawnee community center vote

A rendering of the proposed community center in Shawnee. Voters soundly rejected a property tax increase to pay for the project.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of the August primary. Based on the (ample) input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for city council in Shawnee.

Today we publish the candidates’ responses to question two:

In May, Shawnee voters soundly rejected a proposed property tax increase to pay for a community center. What steps should the city be taking following the outcome of the election: Should it be looking to put together a different proposal for building and funding a community center? Should it be looking at different ideas for using the land?

City Council Ward 3 (four year term)

Nick Reed

I’ve said before that I believe that community centers, pools, parks and other amenities are vital to the culture of a city. They help get people out of the house and meet their neighbors and foster a healthier and more unified community. And that is something that West Shawnee currently lacks.

The vote showed us that the project, either that specific plan or the funding mechanism didn’t have the support in the city as a whole. But even those who fought against this version of the community center said there is “a better way.”

So I think it is important for us as a city to continue looking into ways that we can help create these experiences for our residents.

For the immediate future, it we need to get our house in order when it comes to infrastructure, but I don’t believe that we should abandon the attempt to provide this projects for our City. As for the land, we have owned the land for a while and property values are not declining, so I think the future purpose of that land will become clearer as we put together an up-to-date community plan.

Kurt Knappen

After having knocked on over 1700 doors personally already this Primary season, I am still in “listen” mode regarding this topic. Clearly, based on the resounding city-wide vote a full-scale Community Center is not likely.

I believe we should listen to residents and decide whether or not to sell the land, opt for a more reasonable alternative such as an indoor (or outdoor) pool only or other potential uses for the land (skate park, bike trail, etc.). Before making a decision, I would like to hear from residents and explore all options. We need to make a fiscally responsible decision.

Dawn Rattan

The city should do a root cause analysis of why it failed. Really dig deep to determine why it was rejected and find out what residents want as an alternative to the community center development. Shawnee does need recreational amenities that encourage business growth and provide value to our residents. One suggestion is for it to be funded by a shared public/private partnership, or a swimming pool that can be utilized by Mill Valley High School, our middle schools, and elementary schools.
When we do get good information on the direction to take, we need to go overboard on communicating factual details early and often to our citizens. Complete transparency will allow our citizens to make informed decisions and build their confidence in our city leaders.

City Council Ward 3 (two year term)

Kevin Straub

I think the voters of Shawnee soundly decided they do not want a community center right now. Let’s remember, the original purpose of that land was to have a western pool, and I still hear that as I go door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhoods. A pool would be cost-effective, not compete with private businesses, and provide an important amenity in a fiscally responsible way. In 2004 the city purchased land on 55 street with a promise of a western pool then in 2009 they bought the land on Woodland with a promise of a western pool. It is time the city keeps it promise.

Greg Sitzmann

I believe Shawnee always needs to be looking at ways to improve what the community has to offer. Other communities have built out around their community center and have shown great success. I believe if Shawnee decided to move forward with another plan for a community center in the future it needs to be in a land area that can support multi-family units and retail being built around the community center. Yes, Shawnee government should always be looking at ways to best utilize the land they own. Presently this land is sitting empty and providing no economic reward for the city.

Lisa Larson-Bunnell (incumbent)

Shawnee voters sent a clear message that they do not want their property taxes to increase in order to build a community center. While I would love to see more city amenities in western Shawnee, the city does not have sufficient funds to explore an alternative plan that would not require a property tax increase. Furthermore, the substantial infrastructure needs caused by the corrugated metal pipes used throughout our stormwater management system make it fiscally irresponsible to consider diverting general funds for a community center or new municipal pool at this time. Unless we can expand our tax base, we will not be in a position for significant taxpayer funds to be put toward a project like this for several years.

The land is currently used by the city for storage and other short term needs. I would not be in favor of divesting this land until such time as a comprehensive plan for city buildings and storage is complete and it is determined the land will not be needed.

City Council Ward 4

Matt Shaw

I believe that there are several more fundamental steps that the city needs to take before looking at any new proposals for another version of a community center. It is first crucial that the city take time to analyze and really understand how a project, which took so many resources, could have garnered so little support. The lessons learned through this analysis need to be taken to heart.
As I knock on doors and talk with residents, I am constantly asking about the community center, their impression of the city’s work on the proposal, how they voted and why. I continue to listen and learn, but several things have become clear to me already in this process:

First, a project of this magnitude needs to be part of a vision and long term plan for Shawnee. When being asked about a significant investment, residents and businesses deserve a compelling answer to the question of “why?”. This however is not possible without an overall strategy in place to point back to. A lack of long term vision also makes alignment and consensus more difficult to build at all levels.

Second, more transparency around the entire process would be extremely helpful. There are many different options for how to finance, share ownership, and operate a large facility. It needs to be much clearer as to which options were considered and why the city ultimately decided to go with its final proposal.

Finally, the city needs to keep in mind the context of its actions. Property taxes have risen regularly due to valuations over the past several years. At the same time, similar facilities have been built near Shawnee which Shawnee residents can also take advantage of. Given the changing context, should the city have changed course at some point?

Overall, I believe the community center has more to teach us, and I plan on knocking, listening and taking those lessons to heart.

Jill Chalfie

Following the results of the community center vote, I believe we should move forward by exploring other uses for the city-owned land. My Parks and Recreation background lends itself to strong support of our city parks, trails, special events, and facilities. I feel passionately about continuing to offer a wide range of cultural and recreational programs to serve all residents and increasing opportunities for walking and biking in Shawnee. Therefore, I would like to see the land ultimately used for a recreational purpose. In addition to providing more opportunities for current residents, adding recreational amenities to our city can help attract new residents and businesses who want to be in a city where their employees can enjoy a live/work/play environment. Shawnee is in the midst of a Strategic Visioning Plan and a Parks Master Plan that will help guide decisions about what we want the future of Shawnee to look like and I would encourage all citizens to be engaged in this process and make their visions known.

Kris Durbin

I am proud to have been an engaged citizen who volunteered with the “Vote No” committee. I wanted to help educate the community about the nature of the city’s proposal.

Prioritizing and Planning for the Future starts with the recognition that the city is not meeting some of the more basic needs of the community, such as $100M in unmet stormwater repairs. The city must change its behaviors to align spending with needs instead of wants. Our public safety departments – police and fire, and our critical infrastructure – stormwater and roads, must be the top priorities.

If an opportunity were to present itself, I could support a public-private venture to build a recreational feature on the city land in western Shawnee. A conceptual plan like this would need to be planned and financed by the private entity, who would also assume the builder’s risk on the project. Such a plan would also have to be operationally sustainable within the terms of the partnership.

I also believe that the city should be examining their actions leading up to the defeated measure. The overwhelming outcome indicates an out-of-touch city government – one that should be conducting root-cause examinations to understand where their planning and actions went wrong.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item number three:

Shawnee has thus far declined to take up a non-discrimination ordinance providing legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. Do you believe the city council should formally consider a city level NDO? Why or why not?