How many lazy rivers does Johnson County need? New community centers controversial

Inside Lenexa’s new, resplendent recreation center, couples play pickleball, kids zoom through water slides and parents float down the lazy river.

The $35.5 million Lenexa Rec Center opened two years ago, and so far, center manager John Forbis said, it’s exceeded expectations. More members are signing up to swim, take classes and sweat through workouts. And the center is hosting more events, Forbis said, including around 20 birthday parties each weekend.

Now other cities throughout Johnson County are looking to build their own shiny, new fun palaces. But with taxpayers often footing a large chunk of the bill, the projects have come with their own controversies. And those who haven’t hopped on the bandwagon yet are starting to wonder whether they should.

Lenexa’s facility was built as part of the new City Center, which came out of a 20-year planning process and also resulted in a new City Hall, library, public market and soon-to-open aquatic center.

City officials estimated around 2,000 individuals and families would sign up for rec center memberships by the end of 2017. Those fees would help the city recover the cost of construction and maintenance within five years of opening. But by the end of that first year, memberships tallied more than 3,000, Forbis said. And that number keeps growing.

“The amount of memberships we see signing up on a regular basis is way higher than I ever could have imagined,” Forbis said.

In addition to the memberships and rental fees, the rec center is funded by a 3/8-cent sales tax approved in 2008. The tax generates roughly $6 million a year, with 60% going to the center, until the tax expires in nine years. At this rate, Forbis said, the rec center is already starting to pay for itself, with extra revenue going into a fund to pay for building upkeep and future programs.

For years, Johnson County suburbs were happily building their own pools, event rooms and ever-important lazy rivers.

Overland Park built one of the first modern community centers in the county in 2007: the $20.5 million Matt Ross Community Center, featuring pools and a water slide, an indoor track and rooms for exercise, games and meetings.

In 2014, Olathe came along with its $28.5 million community center, featuring a giant tube slide, lazy river, basketball courts, a child play area and recreation rooms. Lenexa’s rec center followed three years later.

Merriam’s $36 million center is expected to open next summer.

But suddenly the trend hit an obstacle this spring in Shawnee, and critics around Johnson County are questioning whether residents have been left out of crucial decisions determining what’s done with their tax dollars. In this new climate, Prairie Village this week will consider wading deeper into the community center waters.

Is Shawnee’s project dead?

When it came down to it, Chris Karner of Shawnee said he really just wanted a new swimming pool. He didn’t ask for frills.

“People have been asking for 10 years about having a swimming pool in this area,” he said. “Recently with all of the building up of community centers in various places, it’s like if we’re going to do a pool, let’s build a community center for it. If you’re going to do something, let’s do it big. Everyone wants something new and fancy to attract people to come here. But it should be about what’s really needed.”

As chairman of Citizens for a Better Shawnee, Karner was one of the drivers behind residents overwhelming rejecting a property tax hike to build a $38 million community center, which would have included pools, an indoor turf field, batting cages and a lazy river.

But even though 72% voted against the proposal in May, many think the issue is not yet put to rest.

“I think it will probably depend on the outcome of the election,” said 3rd Ward Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer, who is running for mayor against incumbent Michelle Distler in November. “Voters did not support the project as proposed. That could have been the scope, funding or both. The wisest next step would really be to gather that information, determine what it is about the plan they didn’t like, and then see what they would actually like done.”

Distler was not immediately available for comment.

Meyer believes the western side of Shawnee needs a recreational amenity. She’s frustrated the city hasn’t moved quicker to explore other opportunities for the property at 61st Street and Woodland Drive.

She worries about the city losing out on tax dollars while residents head to the Lenexa Rec Center or other neighboring community centers.

“I hear from a lot of residents traveling to nearby facilities right now, so that does alleviate the need,” she said. “But they are paying significantly higher membership costs. And I worry about the tangential costs for that. If you’re going over there, it’s likely they will stop at a grocery store over there and do more sales tax business there. I’d hate to see those dollars leave our city.”

Shawnee residents have been hearing about plans to build a community center since the city purchased the land in 2007. Opponents criticized the city’s special approval of $500,000 in bond money to subsidize the facility’s first-year operations. They questioned whether the center could attract enough memberships and rentals to fund operational costs.

Karner said he didn’t want taxpayers carrying the burden to fund an “extravagant community center.”

“There had never really been a plan 10 years ago to start a fund to build something like this. And a big concern of a lot of people in Johnson County is just the load of taxes,” Karner said. “And when you compare different cities, it is well known that Lenexa has a very strong industry and business base, whereas Shawnee is much more residential. So it really hurts the residents of Shawnee when you start putting on that extra burden.”

Merriam is halfway there

While some Shawnee voters were opposed to the city’s process for planning a community center, Merriam Councilman David Neal said he wishes his city would have done something similar.

Neal, who represents the 4th Ward, said he supports the city’s community center, currently under construction at Vavra Park, just east of Ikea and Interstate 35. The project includes indoor and outdoor pools, a lazy river, a gym, event spaces and a parking structure.

“I wasn’t opposed to the project itself, I’ve been opposed to the execution of how certain aspects of the project were done,” Neal said. “I wanted the process to slow down a bit.”

The Merriam City Council adopted a master plan in January 2017, which included a rough design of the community center. That September, voters overwhelmingly approved a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for it. The tax took effect last year.

One year later, the council approved the center’s final design. Some residents praised the new amenities. But others complained that the pool would be smaller than the previous outdoor pool that was demolished. They argued the city reneged on promises made when they approved the tax increase.

Neal said he wishes the city would have presented the final design before the sales tax vote, as Shawnee did.

“I think it’s a nice amenity to have for our residents, but the rush to build a community center gets in the way of really optimizing these major investments,” he said. “So what Shawnee did in terms of putting their design first, I think that was the right thing to do. What Merriam did was just not a good approach in my view.”

Opponents submitted three petitions to the city, including one asking for a more comprehensive design review and one that would require residents to vote on any project where Merriam is looking to spend more than $1 million in tax incentives. But the petitions went nowhere.

And now construction of the 66,000-square-foot community center is nearly halfway done, with an expected opening date next summer. Residents will pay the sales tax increase over the next nine years, and the city is issuing $24 million in general obligation bonds to partially fund the project, which voters also approved.

So Neal said most of the problems are “water under the bridge,” but noted the issue remains controversial and may affect the upcoming November election.

“This is a really divisive issue,” he said. “But now we just want people to give it a try and use the facility. The trust will come when people experience it. And we all need to support it because we’ve already invested in it. We need to make it as good as it can be.”

But the City Council still has several decisions to make regarding the project. It will soon consider the membership and rental fee rates needed to cover the community center’s costs.

Merriam contributed $720,000 annually toward operating the old community center and pool, with membership fees and other revenues paying for the rest. If the city maintains similar membership rates at the new center, Assistant City Administrator Meredith Hauck said, the city would need to provide $650,000 a year — a lower amount because the new center will need less upkeep.

And Hauck said the council this month will consider selling land to Johnson County to build a new Antioch library branch next to the community center.

The new library has been another topic of debate in recent years. Merriam residents submitted a petition to the city asking to vote on whether they want a new library on that lot. The City Council also chose not to take action on that petition.

Despite the controversies, Hauck said the new facilities will benefit Merriam for years to come.

“The current community center has served Merriam well for a number of decades. But we’ve been talking about how we want to grow recreational amenities moving forward, and the new community center seems to meet those needs best,” she said. “It’s about more than fitness. It’s a place for our community to gather. And we’re excited about the new opportunities the building will provide for our residents.”

Prairie Village begins planning

Prairie Village is looking to build the next gleaming community center in Johnson County. But for now, plans are moving slowly.

The city began exploring a new community center in 2012, said Assistant City Administrator Alley Porter, but the project didn’t make it past early stages. But over the past several months, the city has been partnering with the YMCA and Johnson County Library to potentially build a joint community center at 79th Street and Mission Road.

“The city has had conversations with the YMCA about their aging facility and knew the Corinth branch was in the library’s plans for major updates. Additionally, our own pool complex is aging as well,” Porter said. “We saw a lot of synergies and opportunities for a civic center type complex. However, it will be up to the residents to determine if this is something they would like to see.”

The city, YMCA and county will fund a study to determine the market for such a complex. The city is reviewing proposals and should select a firm this week, Porter said. So far, the city has no estimates as to the cost or scope of the project. The market study should include a public input process.

While some officials have said they’re approaching community center projects more cautiously after the Shawnee vote, Porter said she views it as a “much different project.”

“Prairie Village has been very successful in multi-jurisdictional partnerships, such as Meadowbrook,” she said,referring to the recently opened development at the former golf club that includes a public park and private homes. “We believe this consideration is strategic and a reasonable discussion in retaining two valuable assets in our community.

“The city of Prairie Village has always gone to great lengths to include as much citizen input as possible, and we’re continuing that with this process.”

But some residents said there are lessons to learn from both Shawnee and Merriam. Mainly, residents are pleading to have their voices heard throughout every step of the process.

“Other cities need to really listen better to their constituents. That’s a big thing, learning what we actually want,” Karner said. “And set aside preferences to do what is right. What is this actually going to do to the community? Face the facts. And don’t cover things up or make things look pretty when you know there’s going to be problems.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.