Update: Merriam leaders approve new $30M community center

UPDATE, 9/24: The Merriam City Council on Monday approved a new $30 million community center on a 5-3 vote. 

EARLIER STORY: MERRIAM, Kan. — Merriam City Council plans to hold a final vote next Monday on a proposal for a new $30 million community center that some neighbors remain frustrated over.

Voters passed the plan last year that would demolish the Merriam Aquatic Center to make way for a facility offering a gym, track, both an indoor and outdoor pool, and other amenities.

However, neighbors have voiced criticism of the plan since the proposed new outdoor pool would be much smaller than the current one at Vavra Park built decades ago.

“It is the essence of how I met people in my community,” explained Merriam resident Suzanne Downey, who helped organize a community effort and website against the project. “To me, it was a really big deal to keep this pool and keep that long-standing tradition of aquatics in our community.”

Over the weekend, Downey met with other concerned neighbors to discuss the plan.

Downey told 41 Action News that her children often used the pool for swimming and athletic meets.

However, she believed the new community center would wipe away the memories and traditions of the current facility.

“It’s a loss to the city of Merriam,” she explained. “It’s a huge loss.”

Downey and other neighbors said city leaders misled them when putting forth the plan and they failed to disclose the impact to the current pool.

The group has also raised concerns about how a plan to build a multi-million dollar parking garage for a new Johnson County library will take up space at the park.

They now hope petitions and their organized effort can make City Council reconsider.

“We want answers. We don’t want to take a worse situation,” she said. “We don’t feel like anything is stopping this process and we’re not being heard.” 

On Tuesday, 41 Action News spoke with Mayor Ken Sissom about the project.

He stood by the plan and said the new community center would offer all sorts of new amenities, including year-round swimming and pool programs.

“You can do swimming in the winter. We can do swim lessons in the winter. We can have therapy swimming,” he explained. “We had the opportunity to build a center that was going to be the right size for our community and hold all the amenities that our citizens were expecting.”

While the project calls for the current pool to be demolished, the mayor said the decision was best for the area.

“It was decided long ago that the larger pool was not something we could sustain,” he explained. “There’s no bait-and-switch here. They may want to make it look that way but it wasn’t. There was never any promise we were going to leave the old pool as is.” 

Sissom described the years of studying, public hearings and surveys that were part of the project and said the criticism from neighbors was coming very late in the process.

“When you show up in the 11th hour and want all these changes, it doesn’t make sense for us to go forward with them,” he said. 

City Council is slated to hold a final vote on the project next Monday.

If the plan is approved, the aquatic center would be demolished in October before the new community center opens in 2020. 

The meeting will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at Merriam City Hall.

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