Merriam council candidates on the issues: Future of the Irene B. French Community Center site

With its new modern community center under construction, Merriam is considering options for what to do with the Irene B. French Community Center site.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for city council in Merriam.

Today, we begin publishing the candidates’ responses. The first question was as follows:

The city council in the coming months will have to decide on a final plan for repurposing the former Irene B. French Community Center site. What’s your vision for the site? How should the city fund a project to repurpose it?

City Council Ward 1

Jason Silvers (incumbent)

My vision for the site is an extension of Merriam’s downtown to increase its draw and appeal—a destination location that connects the current, historic downtown and the Merriam Marketplace through locally-owned restaurants, coffee shops, and possibly a microbrewery. Unfortunately, my vision doesn’t align with the plan submitted to the council, the resident’s desire to retain the plot as city-owned property, or the city’s disinterest in becoming a landlord. Therefore, I will listen to my constituents and consider the plan which best utilizes the space in a cost-effective and broad-use way, while attempting to save and incorporate the original 1911 building if possible.

I believe the cost of repurposing the Irene B. French building should have been tied into the cost of the new community center, that way residents could have had a better idea of the overall cost of both projects upfront. As far as I understand, there should be enough money in the city’s regular fund to cover the basic redesign of this location at no additional cost to Merriam residents.

John Canterbury

Did not respond.

City Council Ward 2

Dan Leap

Merriam residents should receive a mail ballot stating the exact plan and cost (NOT another bait & switch) asking if they are willing to pay increased sales taxes and/or property taxes to pay for the re-purposing of the old building. What residents want is what’s important, not my vision.

Because its location in the flood plain limits the options, the question is not how to fund the re-purposing, but whether the project should be publicly or privately funded. When city hall first began talking about the NEW community center, staff told the council that it would cost between $12 to 15 million to rehabilitate the OLD community center and we could probably build a new one for around $25 million. (Now up to 36.6 million) The question back then was, why spend $15 million and still have an old building? I guess the question remains the same….

Whitney Yadrich

My top priority for the future of 5701 is that our citizens have the most influential voice in this process. I’ve knocked on hundreds of doors since June, and it’s clear to me that city hall needs to earn back trust from residents. The feelings of frustration and resentment regarding the new community center are still raw, and this project is an opportunity to begin the healing process.

The 2017 ballot initiative should have included proposed funding and recommendations to sunset 5701. A 2015 assessment provided substantial information that could have shaped financial strategy and design preparations. Unfortunately, we’re less than a year away from the new community center opening, and do not have a clear path.

I believe we need to do three things in the near future:

Act fast to do a structural evaluation. Following the steering committee report, the council voted to move forward with this process. I will work to expedite this evaluation, so we can reduce the tax dollars and man power spent to maintain an empty building on city property. We need to know if it’s possible to preserve and maintain the 1911 building and other historic elements of the structure.

Get responsible bids for initial work to prepare the land for a new project. The council recently approved the 2020 budget, so it is likely we’ll have to find this money in 2021.

Develop a proactive, extensive and accessible communications plan to involve Merriam citizens in the decision-making process.and beyond. We could:

  • Expand feedback gathering methods, like 5701-specific direct mail, online surveys, text updates and smaller neighborhood meetings.
  • Hold multiple public meetings at various times, so citizens can find one that fits their schedule.
  • Encourage community ownership and pride by allowing residents to personally invest in the project, like donating named bricks and adopting green space.

Together, we need to create a multi-purpose, high-value and beautiful destination in the heart of our community.

City Council Ward 3

Amy Carey

The Irene B French building is near and dear to many in our community and everyone seems to have their own opinions as to what should happen with this space. In past reports from city staff, they have recognized that, “The age of the facility and the infrastructure are showing obvious signs that it is reaching the end of its life.” I would like to see this land eventually be sold to a private company. Perhaps a senior living facility or a child care facility. Or if we are unable to find a buyer, maybe a community dog park would be great at this location. There have been talks of an amphitheater, which I am not on board with. An amphitheater automatically puts you at the weathers mercy and can potentially cost money instead of bringing money in. Not to mention the fact, that Merriam Drive would be unable to support the traffic that would come with an outdoor venue. The location alone has a lot to offer a business. I do not believe any money should be spent on the existing building as Merriam already has high dollar projects in the works.

Bruce Kaldahl

My vision is an open, predominantly green, space that evolves into a beautiful park over the next 5-10 years. The space includes the parts of the historic building that can be saved and repurposed in an economically viable manner. The space complements the existing Market Place giving our downtown a space for concerts, art shows and festivals. The space includes activities for all ages, trails, playgrounds, outdoor exercise equipment, picnic tables and shelters, an amphitheater, the possibilities are endless.

The space evolves over multiple years because we pay for the development through our current revenue streams and budgets – without special taxes or a tax increase.

City Council Ward 4

Staci Chivetta

As the appointed chair of the citizen committee charged with deciding what to do with the Irene B. French Community Center site I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what should happen at 5701 Merriam Drive. We were very lucky to have a committee of members that represent various backgrounds and skills that were very beneficial in considering all aspects of the charge that was set before us – to find the most creative, productive and responsible new use for both the buildings and the site. After having a great dialogue with the committee, we surveyed the community’s thoughts through a survey and public meetings.

The committee ultimately felt that saving the 1911 portion of the building, if structurally possible, and turning the remainder of the site into an outdoor event space/amphitheater, park space and different types of playgrounds, would be the best use for the property. We all felt that this could be a catalyst for downtown Merriam revitalization. Our consultants put a cost estimate on this plan of about $3 million. On behalf of the committee, I presented this recommendation and report to the council in early August. The Council voted to accept the report + voted to have a fesability study to be done on the 1911 building to see what can be saved..

The funding for the overall project is still a puzzle piece that the Council will have to figure out. Overwhelmingly throughout this process when talking with residents we heard that no one wants property taxes risen to cover the cost of this project. In the draft of the 2020 Budget that was accepted by Council in August there is $650,000 set aside to kick start the project. At the very least – this could mostly accomplish figuring out if the 1911 building can be saved and demo the rest of the site until funding is secured for the rest of the project. Ultimately, I believe that the citizens should have a vote on how the project is funded because they were able to vote on the construction and funding of the new community center.

As this process keeps going, hopefully the Army Corps will be able to get the appropriations to get the Turkey Creek Flood Control Project underway to help make downtown an even more viable place for revitalization. To find out more about the process and the final report that was presented to City Council please visit this page.

Bob Pape (incumbent)

This is probably one of the most complicated and intriguing questions facing Merriam today. It is also divisive in nature because it invokes such emotion and passion in many of our residents. The Irene B. French community center holds a lot of history in Merriam. The original building was built in 1911 and it has been added on to in 1938, 1951 and 1989. It was the first building that Johnson County Community College held classes. It has also served as an elementary school and a high school. It is situated in downtown Merriam and could hold the key to revitalization of this commercial district. Unfortunately, this district is located in a flood plain, which further complicates what can be done there. We have been working with the Corp of Engineers to remove this area from the flood plain. We have committed 5 million dollars and Johnson County has committed 8 million toward the funding of this project. The Corp anticipates that it will cost over 30 million to remediate this situation. It has been placed on a list of projects that the Corp would like to undertake, but it has not risen to a top priority for funding.

The 5701 Committee met on numerous occasions to discuss various options for this site. They held two public hearings to seek out community input and City staff sought input at various City functions. Although they tried, due to the low community input, I am not satisfied that they have been able to garner the opinion of the majority of our residents. The Committee has brought forth their recommendation to the City Council, but they did not recommend any way to fund it. They would like to see the 1911 building saved; an Amphitheater built and playground equipment installed. We have authorized the hiring of a structural engineer to determine if the saving of the 1911 structure is feasible.

I have asked many of my constituents what they believe should be done with this property. Many believe that the recommendation posed by the committee is worthwhile to pursue. However, they do not want to have their property taxes raised in the process. I understand the importance of maintaining our history, but realize that there are various ways that this can be accomplished. I am concerned about the cost of saving this structure and what the future purpose of the building will be. I am concerned about the cost of maintaining this structure as well. A cost/benefit analysis needs to be completed before a determination can be made on what to do. I believe that the community should decide whether they want to fund whatever we decide to pursue. If our decision involves raising property or sales taxes, then it will need to be placed on a ballot so the citizens can vote.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item two:

The process that led to the design of the new community center and the collaboration with the Johnson County Library on a new Antioch branch drew criticism from some Merriam residents, who claimed it was not transparent enough. What’s your take on the community center-library project? Are you satisfied with the process and the outcome?