Plans to rebuild the Observation Tower at Shawnee Mission Park have been scrapped — at least for now.
The Johnson County Park & Recreation District’s Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, Nov. 15, voted 4-3 to cancel the project and divert the $1.9 million already included in the district’s 2018 budget for the project to other uses. The vote also removed the tower from the district’s immediate list of priorities.
Some commissioners said they wanted to focus on building a new observation tower at Kill Creek Park in Olathe, especially as half of that project’s funding is coming from a private donation. Others said they felt the district had more immediate projects that would serve far more people than a tower.
“Where is the better return on investment for the resident?” asked Steven Klika, a county commissioner who sits on the park board. He suggested using the money to fill needs at Heritage Soccer Park in Olathe, the Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee, or Streamway Park in Mission.
“The tower is fabulous,” Klika said. “But it’s something that we’d just like to have.”
The simple wood and metal structure has been a popular attraction for generations of park-goers wanting to look out at the surrounding forests and countryside since the tower was built in 1964. It was closed to the public in January after officials determined it was unsafe and too dilapidated to be repaired.
El Dorado Architects consulted with the district on designing a new tower and on Wednesday showed the board concepts for a 55-foot-tall concrete structure to be built at the same location. The new tower would have included an elevator and a glass-walled observation deck 40 feet above the ground.
Instead, around $1 million of the project’s budget will be transferred to help build the tower at Kill Creek. The rest of that tower’s budget will come from a $1 million gift given to the Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County by the family of Russell and Helen Means, the couple who donated land that later became the Kill Creek Nature Park.
The family had recommended using the money to build a visitor’s center or observation tower to honor the Means.
Commissioner Nancy Wallerstein said she didn’t think the district should try to build and operate two observation towers at the same time, especially as both towers would have elevators. She said running the Kill Creek tower would provide the district with experience running such a structure, which it could later use for the one at Shawnee Mission Park.
Commissioner Steve Baru, however, said the Shawnee Mission tower was first and should be built now. If the project was successful, then the district could look to build another tower at Kill Creek.
“I don’t like retrenching and downsizing at the expense of upsizing somewhere else,” said Baru, who voted against the move.
Chairman Paul Snider, who made the motion to remove the money, cautioned that the board wasn’t totally eliminating the Shawnee Mission Park project, just delaying it for a few years.
In other business, the board said it would make no immediate decision on whether to replace a fabric dome that had been used for years to enclose the Roeland Park Aquatic Center so people could use the pool during the winter.
The 20-year-old dome, which had already surpassed its expected lifespan, was seriously damaged during a storm last month and ultimately removed. The district operates the aquatic center on behalf of the city during the winter.
The district’s insurer said it would replace the dome, although the district would need to pay a $25,000 deductible. Alternatively, the district could elect not to replace the dome and receive a cash settlement.
The decision comes amid a standoff over who will operate the pool after the district’s current contract ends in May 2019. Board members have said they do not want to continue subsidizing the aquatic center’s winter operations after the current contract ends, and Roeland Park officials have not yet decided if they will continue operating the aquatic center in the winter themselves.
Board members said they would be willing to replace the dome if the city was planning to continue winter operations after the district exited the agreement but would be more willing to take a cash settlement if the dome would be used for only one more season.
“The ball is in Roeland Park’s court,” Snider said.
The insurers have given the district six months to determine what to do with the dome. In the meantime, the aquatic center is closed for the winter.
The board also approved a nominated list of board leaders for 2018, a slate that would make Wallerstein chairwoman and Michael Pirner vice-chairman.
A year ago, Pirner and Commissioner Leslee Rivarola revolted after the board agreed to give Snider back-to-back terms as chairman for 2017. It was later determined that Snider violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by speaking individually with board members to gain support for his move, which ran against the board’s tradition of each chairman serving for a single term.
Wallerstein attempted to have Pirner removed from the 2018 slate as vice-chairman in favor of Baru. She said “there should be consequences” for Pirner’s angry reaction last year and unwillingness to not serve in the number-three position of secretary.
Ultimately, her measure failed, and the board approved the slate as-is.
David Twiddy: email@example.com