Will Shawnee get a community center with pools, gyms, more? Ballots go out this week

Proposed Shawnee Community Center features pool with slides, splash pad, turf field, indoor track, playgrounds and more

Voters will decide whether to approve a property tax increase to fund the construction of the proposed Shawnee Community Center this May.
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Voters will decide whether to approve a property tax increase to fund the construction of the proposed Shawnee Community Center this May.

Drive by the yard signs and flyers in Shawnee neighborhoods or read online community forums and you’ll find a city divided this spring.

The issue? An upcoming mail-in election about a proposed community center.

On one side, a “Vote Yes” group — yes to a proposed plan to raise property taxes to pay for building a 68,000-square-foot community center with indoor swimming pools, gyms, a track, a half-mile outdoor walking loop that links to the Clear Creek Trail and other amenities.

And in opposition: “Vote No” citizens who have decried the center as a waste of taxpayer dollars, questioned its ability to be self-sustaining and called on the city to shift dollars to other needs, such as roads or stormwater management.

The heated debate over the center that would be built on vacant, city-owned land near 61st and Woodland Drive draws closer to the end this week when Shawnee voters receive ballots that will determine its fate.

They’ll vote whether to approve a $38 million bond issue that would increase taxes by $88.32 a year or $7.30 a month for a homeowner with property valued at $263,130. Ballots must be received by May 21 at noon, which means they should be postmarked by May 17, or dropped off at the Johnson County Election Office. Voters can use a calculator on the Shawnee website to see how their taxes would be affected.

City staff have said the cost of the facility will not exceed $38 million, and the city plans to make annual payments of $2.7 million over 20 years. The cost of the project including interest is $54 million.

The proposed Shawnee Community Center would include an indoor playground that would be free and open to the public. City of Shawnee

The center — with some amenities free and open to the public and others only available to paying members — has been heralded by organizations such as the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce as a way to draw both businesses and homeowners to the area and support community health.

“It was imperative to support a project of this nature,” said Chamber of Commerce chairwoman Heidi Thummel in a statement announcing the chamber’s endorsement of the plan. “A positive vote is an investment in healthier Shawnee families.”

Other proponents say its construction will bring tax dollars back to Shawnee, as some residents currently flock to other city rec centers with indoor pools.

“Right now we’re really lacking that facility that you can go and take your family and go to the pool and work out,” Shawnee councilwoman Stephanie Meyer told The Star earlier this year.

But many in the community remain unconvinced, and skeptical of a financing plan reliant on property tax dollars in an area that has grown weary of tax hikes.

That’s the primary concern of a grassroots group called “Vote No: There’s a Better Way.”

“The new tax would place a strain on many residents, particularly those on fixed and lower incomes, seniors, and the disabled,” its website reads. In Shawnee, roughly 15% of the population is over the age of 62.

Beth Kornegay, a 25-year Shawnee resident, lives about 2 miles from the proposed site and says the center would be conveniently located — if she planned on using it.

The 55-year-old says the cost of constructing the center, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it running, doesn’t justify the long list of amenities touted by proponents. And in her circles, she says, people largely agree.

“I have just not seen any compelling reason to spend the money,” said Kornegay. “I just don’t see an entire facility being built just to accommodate people who want to swim during the winter time.”

She’s also not comfortable with the money city officials estimate will be required to operate the center before it drives enough revenue to support itself.

Consultants hired by the city say that conservative estimates show the center operating at a $412,208 loss its first year and recovering 81% of its costs. Deficits would decrease to $252,834 by its fifth year, by which time the city would recover 89% of its costs.

“Every single taxpayer will be on the hook for a facility that will operate in the negative for the first five years,” Kornegay said. “It’s ridiculous.”

But city officials have said Shawnee would likely recover its costs much faster, and cites Lenexa’s center as an example.

In 2018, after its first full year of operation, Lenexa projected a $231,948 shortfall. Instead, it finished the year with $450,000 in revenue, which was put back into the center.

“I don’t think it’s ever been the intent for the Rec Center to be a profit center, but it is to recover and fully pay for itself long term,” said Logan Wagler, deputy director for Lenexa Parks and Recreation.

A look at Lenexa

A recent weekday visit to the Lenexa Rec Center saw patrons working on laptops in a public lounge with free Wi-Fi, a boy climbing a rock wall built above a diving pool and a child playing pickleball with her grandparents. Dozens of people also were using the fitness equipment and indoor track.

The amenities — from a child care space to an outdoor terrace for yoga — are similar to what is planned in Shawnee, though Lenexa financed its center differently.

The $35.7 million 100,000-square-foot building was paid in part by a 2008 3/8-cent sales tax designated for parks and recreation and street improvements, communications director Denise Rendina said. Almost $12 million was paid for by cash generated by the tax; the rest was covered by bonds that will be paid back with sales tax revenue. The ballot passed with 58% of the vote.

Shawnee city officials have cited Lenexa and other municipalities with community centers as proof that memberships and other fees can help swiftly recover operational costs.

According to Lenexa budget documents, the center reported 5,771 total memberships after its first five month of operations. Numbers provided by the city showed that the city recovered around 94% of its operating expenses during that time, though those figures don’t include building or operational costs before it opened in late July 2017.

By the end of 2018, memberships had grown to 8,222. Officials estimate a total of 335,369 visits to the center in 2017 and 2018. Lenexa’s population is 53,000 and Shawnee’s is 67,000.

Those memberships, in addition to fees for rentals, swim lessons and camps, allowed the Rec Center to operate in the black after its first full year of operations. Birthday parties proved to be more of a moneymaker than expected, said Rec Center Manager John Forbis.

“They are extremely popular,” Forbis said. “We are close to maxed out on the weekends almost every single weekend.”

Despite its success, Lenexa has and will continue subsidizing the Rec Center with general funds. The city has set aside $923,000 for the rec center since it opened, and has plans to keep subsidizing it until at least 2021, Rendina said.

Assistant Chief Financial Officer Jill Grube said the subsidies are intended to bolster the Rec Center’s reserves well above city requirements. As of Dec. 31, the Rec Center had nearly $1 million in emergency cash for replacing equipment, repairing infrastructure and dealing with other emergencies.

“We just don’t know what kind of unexpected things might come up,” Grube said.

Shawnee officials haven’t announced any long-term subsidy plan, though they would have to cover shortfalls with general funds. And they have allotted $500,000 of the proposed bond revenue to help the center get off the ground.

“The $500,000 in the bond is for the ramp up in 2021 prior to opening and generating revenue through memberships, programs and rentals,” Deputy Parks & Recreation Director Tonya Lecuru said in an email.

Shawnee officials said that they opted to pay for the center with property taxes because the city’s sales tax rate is already high, and would require an additional quarter-cent tax to cover the city’s annual payments. A special sales tax would sunset in 10 years, requiring a public vote to renew it before the center would be paid for.

Need for aquatics?

A pool facility has been discussed in Shawnee since the early 2000s, but conversations around a more comprehensive recreational center started in earnest around 2007, when the city purchased the site.

Though the recession stalled progress, surveys in 2013, 2015 and 2017 indicated support for an indoor rec center, city staff has said.

One of the most common requests? Indoor aquatic facilities.

Shawnee’s plans currently call for five pools: a water slide, a four-lane lap pool, a splash pad, a hot tub and a leisure pool with a small lazy river.

The proposed Shawnee Community Center would feature both indoor and outdoor amenities, some free and open to the public and others only for paying members. Members could use aquatic facilities, including a splash pad, lazy river, lap pool, hot tub and water slide. City of Shawnee

The water facilities, in addition to a turf gym, indoor walking track, fitness equipment and multi-activity gym, will be available to members. A lounge with Wi-Fi, the outdoor walking trail, a cyclocross track and indoor and outdoor playgrounds would be free for the public to use.

Memberships, which also include fitness classes, are proposed at $480 annually for adults, $360 for youth ages 2 to 17, $420 for seniors, $480 for senior couples and $840 for families up to five.

Day passes are proposed at $8 and child care fees at $3. Non-residents would pay around 30% more.

In comparison, Lenexa charges adults $682 for annual memberships that include exercise classes, while Overland Park charges $550.

In a 2018 survey about parks and recreation services, 48% of respondents said they would vote in favor of a property tax increase to fund the center. Seventeen percent said they’d vote against, while an additional 35% weren’t sure or didn’t say.

At an informational meeting held last last month, a handful of people spoke about their excitement for the facility, while several others said they were happy to cede a community center to other cities if it meant saving dollars, in both their pockets and the city’s.

In the 2018 survey, citizen Ray Erlichman pointed out at the meeting, 52% of residents had yet to be sold on the idea.

“That’s why we are taking it to a ballot,” Lecuru said then. “So people can take this information and decide if that’s what’s right for you and your family.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.