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Voters to weigh in on $38 million community center in Shawnee

A rendering of the front of the proposed center.
A rendering of the front of the proposed center. Courtesy photo

Voters in Shawnee will be asked in May whether the city can borrow up to $38 million to build a community center, the largest single project in city history and the potential answer to more than a decade of citizen requests for a new fitness and recreational venue.

In a series of measures Monday night, the City Council voted 7-1 for the $38 million figure and to hold a mail-in election to get the public’s approval of the project, which would include multiple swimming pools, gymnasiums and other fitness areas on 26 acres that the city owns at 61st Street and Woodland Drive.

The city plans to mail ballots to all registered voters in Shawnee on May 1 with a deadline to return the ballots by May 21. The votes would be counted and certified on May 28.

Deputy City Manager Stephen Powell said the city chose to use a mail-in election because waiting until the general election in November could lead to higher construction prices and that mail-in elections in Johnson County have typically generated higher voter participation than regular elections. The election is expected to cost more than $95,000.

A team of architects and construction consultants ran through plans for the proposed center, which would cover almost 68,000 square feet. Among the center’s offerings:

▪ An 11,485-square-foot indoor aquatic center with a recreational pool, a lap swimming pool and a “splash pad” playground.

▪ A gymnasium with two full basketball courts and an indoor artificial turf field.

▪ An 11,000-square-foot fitness center with equipment rooms, open workout areas, group fitness studios and an indoor walking/jogging track.

▪ Several multi-purpose classrooms and rental spaces.

▪ Outdoor event spaces, including a walking trail along the boundary of the property and a connection to the Clear Creek Trail.

“If the residents direct us that this is what they’re wanting, we think we’ve got a good community center that they’ll be proud of,” said Neil Holman, Parks & Recreation director.

If voters approve, construction could begin next year and the center could open in the summer of 2021.

Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer, who voted for the election and bond amount, noted that Shawnee residents first expressed an interest in a large-scale community center during a city parks and recreation needs assessment in 2003 and that support for the center has been reiterated in subsequent surveys and reports.

“This is an issue that the public would like the opportunity to weigh in on, and we owe them that opportunity,” Meyer said. She later added, “For 15 years, our residents have waited for the city to honor this promise. Tonight, we have a chance to tell them that they have been heard.”

Other council members, however, expressed concern about the project’s cost and funding source.

If the center is approved, city officials said they plan to increase property taxes over the next 20 years to cover the annual $2.7 million bond payments. Based on 2018 property values, city officials estimated they would need a 2.919-mill increase. That would raise the taxes on a $300,000 home by $100 a year.

City taxpayers would also have to cover any revenue shortfalls. The city plans to sell community center memberships of up to $480 a year for individual residents and $840 a year for families. Non-residents would pay up to $580 a year for an individual and up to $1,000 for a family.

But consultants estimated the center would still run a deficit during the first five years of operations, which they said was common as the facility attracts more members. In fact, the council voted 6-2 to set aside $500,000 of the bonds to cover the operational costs of the center’s first year.

Darin Barr, with consultant Ballard*King & Associates, said that while some cities price their centers to break even rather than be affordable, “when we looked at this facility it was really with the idea that we really wanted to try and get as many residents as possible into the facility.”

Barr added that the city is also considering providing scholarships for low-income residents, similar to what the Parks & Recreation department already offers for other programs.

Councilmen Eric Jenkins and Mike Kemmling criticized the center’s fees, claiming that taxpayer were essentially subsidizing center users’ recreational time. They also questioned the city taking on additional debt and said it would hamstring their ability to respond to other pressing infrastructure needs.

“I think it’s a beautiful facility, and I think a lot of people would really enjoy it, but we need to get back to some reality stuff as well,” Jenkins said.

He ultimately voted for the price of the bonds and the election, while Kemmling cast the lone no vote against both. They both voted against the $500,000 set aside for initial operations.

Before the council voted, a handful of residents spoke on the proposal with several saying the city should expand the proposed ballot language or possibly include with the mail-in ballot additional information to better educate voters on the property tax increase, membership fees and other issues.

Kris Durbin said he felt most of the city’s surveys have been slanted in favor of the center.

“I don’t think the citizens have had a fair opportunity to weigh their opinions on this matter,” Durbin said.

City officials said they have looked into what type of information could be included with the ballot but that such decisions rest with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, which has typically avoided adding such material. They said they will spearhead an education effort, including news releases, community speakers and information on the city website.

Tracy Thomas said she worried that residents from outside the city would flood the center, making it less useful for city residents and taking advantage of what she considered cheap membership fees.

“You have no idea what’s coming,” Thomas said.

Eric Danielson, on the other hand, said he’s spoken with enough parents, students and other community members to know there’s big support for a community center.

“Today’s not a referendum on the project,” Danielson told the council. “You don’t have to pick a winner or loser. Let us be the ones who say if this is a good project or not.”

David Twiddy: dtwiddy913@gmail.com

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