A plan to rehab the former King Louie bowling alley into a center for the Johnson County museum, early voting and performing arts took another step toward reality last week, as the Johnson County Commission moved it forward.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to bring the project up for approval at their March 12 meeting. They also will pursue a management agreement that would merge the museum into the park department, giving the department control over the museum, the Lanesfield School and activities at the new center beginning in 2017. That 10-year agreement would put museum employees under Johnson County Park and Recreation. It would keep the museum advisory board, however.
As indicated by the vote, the plan to redo the accordion-roofed building at 8788 Metcalf Ave. still has skeptics on the commission. John Toplikar raised the issue of undeveloped park land in casting his no vote.
“If we’re going to spend money in the parks department, we need to spend on all those hundreds of acres sitting idle in parkland the people have asked us over and over again to open,” Toplikar said.
The county has parks planned for Big Bull Creek and Rieke Lake areas, but has been not yet developed them.
Commissioners Jason Osterhaus and Michael Ashcraft also voted not to pursue the King Louie project.
Commissioner Steve Klika cast a “yes” vote, but said his support on March 12 will depend on how well the project meets the long-range goals of the park department, among other things.
Klika was instrumental in bringing the earlier plans for the King Louie to a halt after joining the commission in 2013. However, he has supported the most recent plan, with its emphasis on community use rather than county office space.
Klika said he, too, struggles with whether the project is the right call, in light of the undeveloped park land. “I am trying to rationalize in my mind does this project help us meet those goals (of the parks master plan)?” he said. “That’s the thing I will weigh over in the next couple of weeks.”
Klika, who also serves on the park board, pointed out that the one additional staffer that will be added to the county payroll for the new center will be for building maintenance and will be paid for from rental and activity fees generated by the arts center.
Park and rec director Jill Geller told the commission that she thinks the plan fulfills a need for themed community centers in different parts of the county.
Nancy Wallerstein, a park board member, added, “This is one of the things we’ve been looking for for 15 years.” The central location makes for an attractive site for other arts organizations, she said.
“Schools are suffering and, as you know, it’s always the arts that get cut first,” Wallerstein said.
The commission hashed over the plan after first hearing a presentation by county staff and SFS Architecture of Kansas City, which did the preliminary design. The site, referred to as the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, would have space for the county museum, theater for Theatre in the Park and other theater groups, rehearsal, workshop and dance classroom space and multi-purpose rooms for event rental and advance voting.
The rehab would cost $22.2 million, of which $3.6 million has already been spent to weatherize and secure the building.
About $6.7 million of the building cost is already approved and in the county’s capital improvement budget to be used for the core of the building and advanced voting. Another $5.5 million is in the 2015-19 capital improvement budget for relocating the museum.
The project would also require $1.5 million for 20 years for debt service, although some of that is already in the budget as well. To pay the debt on the project, the county would have to add $383,000 each year for 20 years to the $1.128 million already planned.
The plan caught some flak from the public before the committee meeting began. During the public comment portion of the regular meeting held earlier, Philip Klein of Leawood urged the commission to put the King Louie plan before the voters.
“I don’t understand, basically, why do we need this building?” he said, adding later, “I think this is going to be what you call a house of horror. You’re going to keep pouring money into this building, finding things going wrong with this building and going on and on and on.”
Tracy Thomas of Shawnee said the King Louie purchase was based on misinformation and a lack of due diligence by the commission, which didn’t get an appraisal before buying it for $2 million in 2011. The building had been vacant since 2009.
She predicted the arts activities would lose money and called the merger of parks and the museum a “takeover.”
“They’re kind of the Ukraine and (Commission Chairman) Ed Eilert is kind of Vladimir Putin on a horse,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said that County Election Commissioner Brian Newby was “dragooned” into putting advanced voting at the center and is against the idea.
Newby expressed reservations in an interview later about whether the new space will be ready in time. The county has promised a “soft opening” of the center in October 2016 for the presidential election. But Newby said the county would need to know by next January whether he will have advance voting space in July of that year for the August primary.
Newby said the King Louie space is one small site out of three or four more he has to find for those elections and is not as big as the space at 9800 Metcalf Ave. that the county has used in the past. He said his office needs more space for training election workers as well.
“It’s one more location and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but we have to negotiate all these things and they’re hard to find,” he said.
The plan to merge the museum and parks proved more popular with commissioners. It was considered on a separate motion, with only Toplikar voting against it.