Council eliminates short-term fix option for addressing issues at the Irene B. French Community Center

The heart of the Irene B. French Community Center (IBFCC) is more than 100 years old. The original stone building was Johnson County’s first K-12 school, then home to a variety of other public institutions. Over the years the original building was either added onto or modified on multiple occasions. In the late 1980s the city purchased the vacant building and made further additions and modifications to create the current community center. Now, 25 years later, the multiple additions and modifications, as well as floods and systems failures, have taken their toll and become very expensive to maintain. The IBFCC’s roof leaks and its basement floods creating hidden mold issues; the temperature is either too hot or too cold; each shift in wind direction is accompanied by a different sewer odor; original ceiling tiles intermittently fall through the existing ceiling tiles; and concrete and mortar crumbles. The city has done everything it can to keep the building in service. However, the facility is at the end of its useful life.

Similarly, the Merriam Aquatic Center (MAC) also faces serious age-related issues. The filter house and pool basins are more than 30 years old and the bathhouse older than 55 years old. Neither the IBFCC or MAC provide adequate access to people with disabilities and neither is fully compliant with modern life-safety or building codes. In short, the IBFCC and MAC require prompt attention and the city cannot continue the current practice of making expensive, unplanned repairs as they arise.

To that end, beginning in 2014 the city began engaging professional consultants to provide comprehensive assessments to determine what it would require to continue operating these facilities, specifically in the areas of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, accessibility, safety, and engineering. Findings of these studies provided detailed scenarios for addressing these issues and clearly determined that extensive, costly repairs are necessary.

Due to the high cost of those solutions, a resident steering committee was formed in late 2015 to investigate the future of recreation facilities in Merriam. As part of that year-long process there were multiple opportunities to solicit public feedback and design a concept around what residents said they want, including amenities residents indicate they would value most in a new facility. At the conclusion of that process the professional consultants presented a facility concept and business plan consistent with information gathered during extensive public engagement activities.

Now, after several years of comprehensive studies, gathering public input, and thoughtful deliberation, the city is confronted with three possible solutions: an option that addresses minimal issues and repairs, an extensive remodel option, and a build-new option. However, as staff considers these solutions and long-term budget implications, it becomes clear the first option is no longer viable and staff would like to eliminate it from future consideration.

Over the past year, as city staff worked with the public to determine an appropriate path forward, it has become very clear that our existing facilities do not meet the community’s current needs. Pursuing an option that only addresses the bare minimum issues, for an estimated combined cost of $4 – $6 million, is not forward-thinking, and does not move the needle toward meeting the community’s needs. By simply addressing our failing systems, the city would not resolve the deficiencies in our ability to offer meaningful programs or the inefficiencies of operating a community center in a 100-year-old school. Simply stated, after spending millions of dollars the current needs of Merriam residents would not be addressed as there would be few noticeable improvements.  Not to mention we would continue to operate within building spaces that are still between 30 – 100 years old and remain vulnerable to further age-related failures down the road.

Staff remains committed to facilitating a public discussion about the future of city recreation facilities. Eliminating an option from consideration that is simply a short-term fix clarifies a commitment to ensuring that current and future residents will continue to enjoy the safe, inclusive, high-quality experiences they expect and deserve from Merriam’s recreation facilities.

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