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 and mayor in Shawnee.
Today, we publish the candidates’ responses to item two:
Voters soundly defeated a proposed property tax increase to pay for a community center. Do you think a major community center like the one that was proposed is still a project the city should be considering? Or is it time to move on? Why?
As a ward three council member for nearly six years, I can tell you that the community center was the single most-frequent topic I heard from my constituents, and I think we were all surprised by the outcome of the public vote. That being said, it should absolutely be respected – the residents spoke clearly and loudly that they did not support this project as proposed and funded.
There’s a great deal we can learn from this vote, and I am hopeful that it will be the beginning of a broader, city-wide conversation about who we want Shawnee to be, including the future use for the land, and recreational options for our western corridor. Forty-six percent of our resident voters weighed in on this proposal, which is incredible! It makes no sense that we would not be reaching back out to these individuals (and even those who didn’t vote) to determine the next steps: what they didn’t like about the plan, what they did, and how to best move forward with consensus. Facilitating this discussion is the precise role of a leader and learning from our mistakes is always the right decision.
I still believe there is incredible value in having a strong Parks and Recreation system in our community. We enjoy a wonderful quality of life here in Shawnee, and community amenities are certainly an important component. The 2019 plan was obviously not the right one, so let’s find one that is, and do it together. It is an incredible waste of knowledge and resources to simply pretend as though the vote never happened. Instead, we must learn from the engagement and participation to move forward together.
Maybe it’s an outdoor pool. Maybe it includes additional bike paths and sidewalks throughout our city. Maybe it includes more services at the Civic Centre. And maybe it means that we hold on all of these efforts until our business tax base has grown to accommodate a different funding stream, or key partnerships have been identified. But none of it can happen by burying our heads in the sand and not gathering feedback and taking it to heart. I welcome the opportunity to lead on this issue and more—not to achieve my objectives but to achieve our city’s objectives.
Michelle Distler (incumbent)
I’m a firm believer in City Government following the lead of its citizens and businesses. It’s why we sponsor our strategic visioning sessions for everyone in the city to attend and also why we send out future surveys to every resident. The final answer to what a Center might be will come from the input we receive from those for whom we work – Shawnee citizens. It is a question I pose to residents. Is it something they want us to prioritize? I do think it would have been an additional amenity for our city enjoyed by our residents. When I visited 6,000 individual doors in 2015, I was asked about it at by only 3 people. However, survey results showed a greater interest when asked. Now, with my reelection campaign, I’m getting additional feedback. What I am hearing is that even those who supported it felt what was proposed was too costly and that there is a shared concern for it possibly putting our local gyms out of business or raise our taxes. Our current budget doesn’t have the room to fund it without a tax increase at this time. I hear repeatedly from residents that there is still an interest for an indoor pool and playground, which was the original focus City Council first started discussing this in 2006. What I also learned is that 72% of our community can come together in agreement on what they don’t want so how do we get 72% agreement on what we do want as a community?
City Council Ward 1
Continuing to consider a similar proposal that voters resoundingly opposed is not appropriate. As a City Council, we need to understand what our citizens would like, if they want anything at all. The questionaire sent to households for the original proposal was skewed in it’s presentation, meaning not having a recreation center was not an option. It seemed to be an agenda of a few wrapped in a shroud of public need. The voters responded.
Jim Neighbor (incumbent)
The proposal was put to the people for a vote, and rejected. Is there still a demand? From the response I’m getting at doors, apparently there still is, in some sort of iteration. When, haven’t a clue, we have so many challenges, both short and long term currently on our plate that are going to keep us occupied in the forseable future. It goes back to getting the Commercial tax base above the 30% goal, hopefully higher, and it is a time consuming process and effort. This in turn will generate the revenues to meet providing City services, and infrastructure revitalization. Currently a community center is not a front burner issue at this time in my opinion.
City Council Ward 2
Eric Jenkins (incumbent)
Voters rejected a community center with a definitive 72% margin and it can be frustrating to citizens when some in our city don’t seem ready to accept that result. The voters made a wise decision and I was one of two city council members to stand with them. It’s important to remember the original purpose of the land was a pool, as that is reasonable scope and meets a real need and desire for people in the western part of our city. Certainly, a community center similar to the one the voters rejected should not be brought back. Any proposal would have to be substantially different, self-sustainable, not compete with private business ,and not require a tax increase. It also gets lost in translation that Shawnee does have a community center at approximately Johnson Drive and Pflumm Road. It is adjacent to an outdoor pool and a library. It is quite functional and hosts many events, classes, meetings, pickleball and other activities. We own significant amounts of property adjacent to the existing community center which could easily be used for expansion of activities or a community center annex.
There is plenty for City Council to be addressing now that the community center vote is behind us. Let’s look at of the empty storefronts that are all around us. A lot of the focus as been around downtown, and for good reason, but there are other spots around town that have vacancies such as parts of 75th street and parts of Nieman, which are located in Ward 2. I’d like to see us also look at ways to bring business into those areas, and other areas like them.
One of the very unpopular parts of the community center was its location. While it was centrally located in Shawnee, our city is very wide and the proposed community center did not feel centrally located to Shawnee residents who live toward the East side of town. An expanded biking/walking trail system could be close to everyone. And a well-planned biking/walking trail system could help increase access to our existing parks system and even help with economic growth. The, now infamous, Nieman Now! project includes a biking/walking path. But the neighborhoods that surround the project don’t have sidewalks AND the neighborhoods that are within a few blocks of downtown don’t have a way to get to the new biking path.
We have a lot of new, young families moving to Shawnee…especially in Ward 2. We need to look at ways to keep them here and not have Shawnee just be a place for their starter home. Young families want to have biking/walking trails. They want ice cream shops, for example, that they can bike to after school and on the weekends with the kids.
We also have a lot of seniors in Shawnee. I’ve spoken to many who feel trapped because they want to avoid driving but nothing that they need is within walking distance. We have neighborhoods such as Trails Springs, Shawnee Pioneer, Shawnee Village, and Goddard Heights that could be very friendly to seniors if they were more walkable and their residents had businesses that met their weekly needs within walking distance.
City Council Ward 3 (four year term)
Given that the Community Center was voted down by a margin of 70%-30%, I do not believe that the council should consider another major community center. We do, however, need to find a good use for this land which will benefit both our older and younger families. I would be interested in exploring possible public-private partnerships which could include an indoor pool that would benefit young families, the elderly and local swim teams year-round. That said, we definitely need to listen to the public and gain significant input before putting any additional funds or effort toward this issue. It may turn out that our best option is simply selling the land and returning the money to the general fund.
Before any large projects are introduced again, our leaders must do a root cause analysis to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The analysis should address location, overall cost, tax impact, community buy-in, communication, and overall project time line.
If the entity is not privately owned and operated we should consider:
- building in phases
- using an existing building
- a shared public/private partnership,
- there are discounts for seniors and veterans
- true community buy-in if taxes are impacted
City Council Ward 3 (two year term)
It is time to movie on. The people of Shawnee have spoken. The city should reconsider using the land for a western Shawnee pool. This solution fits the needs of citizens without a massive tax increase. My question is why did the current Shawnee City Council vote to spend over $100,000 of taxpayer dollars on a mail-in ballot regarding the recreation center, rather than wait to put it on the November ballot? Placing it on the November ballot would not have cost any additional tax dollars.
Lisa Larson-Bunnell (incumbent)
The most important thing the city can do at this point is complete the Imagine Shawnee comprehensive strategic plan. If the comprehensive plan includes some variation of a community center, it will be important to consider the best way to pay for it, and ensure that our residents are supportive of that funding source.
When I joined the Council, the project was designed and the proposed funding source decided. I voted to send the proposed community center to a public vote. Our residents sent a clear message that they did not support the property tax increase to pay for a community center.
We have significant infrastructure needs. Those needs, along with fire, police, and public works still need to be our first priority. If the budget permits it, I would consider supporting a smaller project or even an outdoor pool. But I won’t make promises when there are more pressing needs.
City Council Ward 4
The project that the city proposed was not what the taxpayers wanted or need. The citizens responded to this with 72% voting “NO.” Once a funding plan is in place for the neglected storm drain pipes, a market research study can be performed to learn what public recreation services are currently unmet in our community. This study should be conducted by an accredited commercial research firm.
If an unmet need exists, I would be interested in a study to see how a Community Center could be built and operated in a partnership with a private investor. In this Public/Private business arrangement, the private investor could see a financial return for the operation of the Community Center.
Based on the outcome of the vote, I believe a publicly-funded community center needs to be shelved and we should consider the best use for the city-owned land. Quality Cultural and Recreational Opportunities are one of Shawnee’s 7 priorities as set by citizens and businesses and my Parks and Recreation background lends itself to strong support of our city parks, trails, special events, and facilities. Therefore, I would like to see the land ultimately used for a recreational purpose. Cities with strong, vibrant recreational and cultural offerings and opportunities are healthier places to live, and in addition to providing more options for current residents, adding recreational amenities to our city can help attract businesses who want to be in a city where their employees can enjoy a live/work/play environment. We will be able to use data from the current Strategic Visioning Process and Parks Master Plan to make decisions and I appreciate the many opportunities that were provided for residents to give input and those who took the time to attend one of these sessions to make their preferences and priorities known.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item three:
The city is in the process of conducting its first comprehensive planning process. What goals or themes are you hoping to see in the final plan?