Government & Politics

‘We don’t consider that new and improved.’ Critics aim to stop Merriam pool design

Crowds showed up for the final day of the Merriam Aquatic Center.
Crowds showed up for the final day of the Merriam Aquatic Center.

A group of Merriam residents upset about the proposed community center design is gathering petition signatures to try slowing the project down.

The residents, calling themselves Merriam Concerned Citizens, are frustrated that the outdoor pool that will be part of the new aquatic center would be significantly smaller than the existing outdoor community pool that they consider one of Johnson County’s best. They believe the city has reneged on promises made before voters approved a tax increase in 2017 to help build the new center.

“We don’t consider that new and improved. They’re reducing the recreational space in the outdoor pool,” said Thelma Fowler, a leader in the petition effort. “We’re simply stating that the outdoor pool being significantly reduced is unacceptable, and not what we voted for.”

The group is trying to gather 678 signatures of registered voters, which is a tall order in the city of about 11,000 residents, and hoping to do it before the existing pool is demolished, possibly in early October. They’re also mobilizing to pack a crucial Sept. 24 city council meeting, at which the council will vote on the community center design and a tax-increment financing plan to fund an adjacent parking garage.

Mayor Ken Sissom is adamant that city leaders have kept faith with the voters and will deliver a community center that meets residents’ expectations.

“I hear from people all the time that they’re happy with it,” Sissom said of the proposed community center design. “People are getting excited about what we’re getting ready to offer them.”

In September 2017, Merriam voters overwhelmingly approved a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for a new $30 million community center in Vavra Park, between Ikea Way and Slater Street and east of Interstate 35. The tax started in January.

Sissom and others argue the new facility will indeed by “new and improved,” with an indoor walking track, full-size gymnasium, fitness center, classroom and community spaces, party rooms, art gallery, outdoor courtyard, and indoor and outdoor aquatics center.

But the aquatics design has prompted a significant public backlash, especially among people who treasure the existing outdoor, 50-meter pool that has ample swimming lanes, a high dive board, slide and spacious children’s play area.

Sissom says everyone knew the existing pool would be replaced, but it’s worth it to get a pool that can be enjoyed year-round, not just in the summer months. The indoor and outdoor pools would be located adjacent to each other within the community center campus.

Councilman David Neal agrees with citizens who believe too much has been cut from the outdoor pool. He says the city’s initial cost estimates from 2016 didn’t factor in enough inflation estimates or unforeseen site preparation costs. The outdoor pool suffered the brunt of cuts as designers struggled to stay within budget, he says.

“What we ended up with was a design with a really tiny outdoor pool,” he told a group that met Saturday to discuss community center concerns. “It’s not big enough to support an outdoor pool experience.”

He wants the council to slow down, revisit the design, and come up with a better approach to preserve a high quality outdoor pool experience.

Suzanne Downey, a Merriam park board member and longtime resident whose children used the outdoor pool and diving facility extensively, agreed.

“The proposed indoor facility is not a good design, but the outdoors one is flat terrible,” she wrote in a letter to council members.

Critics of the current design point out that campaign materials prior to the tax election said proposed outdoor pool amenities could include a lazy river and slides. Now those are moved indoors.

Assistant City Administrator Meredith Hauck said that during pool design, the lazy river and slide were placed indoors “to allow for year-round use of these amenities instead of in the outdoor pool where they would only be available to the public during the summer pool season.”

At a July 23 Council meeting, after listening to impassioned complaints about the outdoor pool size, council members agreed to a modest increase. It is now expected to have an eight-lane, 25-meter pool that city officials said can still accommodate swim meets.

The current aquatic center has 14,415 square feet of water outdoors. The new facility will have 15,414 square feet of water, including 9,550 square feet outdoors and 5,924 square feet indoors.

Sissom said even if residents collect petition signatures, he doesn’t believe they legally can stop the project from moving forward if it gets council approval Monday night. If project supporters prevail, the city hopes to demolish the old pool this fall and start construction late this year, with an opening sometime in 2020.