After facing pushback from a vocal group of Merriam residents this summer, the Merriam City Council voted to approve the final design for a new $36.6 million community center.
The plans for the center passed 5-3 Monday night, with councilmembers Al Frisby, David Neal and Bob Pape dissenting. The council also approved plans to allocate $6.6 million from the city’s I-35 TIF District for a parking structure at the community center and a preliminary development agreement to rezone the lot on Vavra to planned unit development.
The new designs for the community center include an indoor and outdoor pool, an indoor jogging and walking track, an art gallery and an improved fitness center.
“I think the design of the community center is one that will serve our residents and visitors to our community for generations to come,” said Meredith Hauck, assistant city administrator and project manager for the community center. “It’s a space that is not just about fitness and recreation, it’s a place that brings community together and hopefully creates memories for many generations in the future.”
In September 2017, a large majority of Merriam voters approved a new quarter-cent sales tax to help fund a $30 million community center in Vavra Park. The 10-year sales tax went into effect in January.
However, members of Merriam Concerned Citizens have been critical about the community center since the city released proposed designs in July. The group has since tried to collect enough signatures for a petition to delay the project.
Carrie Duff, a member of Merriam Concerned Citizens, has used the city’s outdoor pool for years. She said the new community center project marks a huge loss to the community, adding that she and her family will probably stop going to the new center once it opens.
“We probably won’t use the community center because it’s so small,” she said.
Residents are primarily concerned that the new outdoor pool will be smaller than the city’s current community pool. In a compromise with residents, the final designs include an additional $1.6 million to accommodate more outdoor pool space, including expanding the outdoor pool from 25 yards to 25 meters and adding two more lanes.
Merriam Mayor Ken Sissom said the city knew from the beginning that the new outdoor pool would not be as large, adding that the city would not have been able to continue financially sustaining the pool at its current size.
Despite concerns from residents about the smaller pool, Sissom said the combined size of the proposed indoor and outdoor pools is still larger than the existing pool. He also said that having an indoor pool could potentially draw more people because it will be accessible year round.
“There is a lot of pool surface and usage indoors that they’re not really giving the city credit for,” Sissom said.
Members of Merriam Concerned Citizens further criticized what they perceived as a lack of transparency from the city throughout the process. Duff called the city’s planning process flawed.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” she said. “I think that they have a great pool that … was really, pretty decent and needed some work.”
Hauck said the city held public meetings and created several committees to engage with the community.
“Public engagement has been a key part of the Merriam community center process from the very beginning,” she said.
Councilmember Frisby said he voted no on the design proposals because he was concerned with the smaller size of the outdoor pool and the placement of a diving well.
“This thing is going to be in the ground for 30, 40, 50 years perhaps,” he said. “And I think in the long term we’ll regret this decision that we did not remove the diving well and put it in a different place.”
Still, Frisby said his no vote was indicative of his issues with the design proposals and did not reflect a lack of support for the community center itself.
“For the size of our city, this is going to be excellent,” he said. “I think people should give it a chance.”
Duff said members of Merriam Concerned Citizens are still working on petitions to stall the project. Demolition of the Merriam Aquatic Center will take place in October, with plans for the new community center to open in the summer of 2020.
Celisa Calacal is an intern at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @celisa_mia.