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Merriam residents have a shiny new community center in their future

Renovations to the existing facility would have cost the city around $20 million.
Renovations to the existing facility would have cost the city around $20 million. Special to The Star

Merriam residents will soon be able to enjoy a new, 66,000-square-foot community center equipped with indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a full-sized gym.

According to the Johnson County Board of Elections, more than half of Merriam voters who cast mail-in ballots — 67.5 percent of the 2,490 who voted — want a new community center.

The Sept. 15 results are unofficial and will be reviewed and certified by the board on Sept. 20.

City Council members in June unanimously approved a mail-in ballot vote that allowed Merriam residents to decide the fate of its more than 100-year-old Irene B. French Community Center located at 5701 Merriam Drive.

Voters cast a “Yes” vote to build a new community center or a “No” vote to renovate the existing facility. Mail-in ballots were sent to Merriam residents at the end of August and had to be returned to the Johnson County Election Office by Sept. 15.

The new site, which will be located at Vavra Park, at 6040 Slater St., will cost the city $30 million. To fund the new center, the city will issue 10-year bonds of up to $24 million. To pay for the bonds, Merriam residents will pay a quarter-cent sales tax over 10 years. The new sales tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Renovations to the existing facility would have cost the city around $20 million.

Among the amenities at the new facility are an indoor and outdoor pool, a state-of-the art fitness center, an indoor walking track and a child watch area. It will also include free WiFi and a lounge area.

The city conducted a community survey in 2015 and a recreation survey in 2016 to determine what services and recreational activities were most important to Merriam residents. In the surveys, 87 percent of residents said it was important to support a community center while 83 percent said it was important to support a pool.

Among the most desirable facilities were an indoor pool, an indoor walking trail and a gym, said City Administrator Chris Engel.

Engel said the community center would serve as a gathering place for residents to socialize with neighbors and engage in the community.

“We want people to share ideas and their values and their thoughts and their opinions in a place like this,” Engel said.

City officials were hesitant about talks of renovations to the existing facility. Merriam Parks and Recreation Director Anna Slocum presented a damage report of the current community center at the Sept. 11 city council meeting. Among the issues was recent flood damage from last month’s rain that included a failed sewage ejector pump and collapsed ceiling tiles on the third floor.

“My fear is that there are so many things behind these walls that we don’t know about,” Slocum said of the proposed renovations, adding that it was possible to go through all the funding for the project and still not solve all the issues.

“My job as a Parks and Rec director is not to be versed in building issues. I should not be able to talk to you about the plumbing,” Slocum said of the 60 percent of time she spends each work week addressing building issues.

City council members will approve an ordinance at its Sept. 25 meeting to formally accept the results and to authorize the new sales tax.

The new facility is expected to open in 2020.

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