Historic downtowns continue to get more and more attention from developers and preservationists.
Take Overland Park. Its downtown has benefited from a series of upgrades in recent years, making it a destination for people throughout the metro and beyond.
Overland Park’s neighbor, Merriam, has a downtown that definitely qualifies as historic, with many buildings more than a century old. But the city has had trouble drawing the kind of outside interest that could transform it into more of a destination hot spot.
Much of that has to do with Turkey Creek, which borders downtown Merriam on the west.
“Downtowns around the U.S. are having a renaissance, and we get lots of inquiries about downtown Merriam,” Bryan Dyer, Merriam’s community development director, said in a presentation to the Merriam City Council at its meeting Monday. “People are willing to pay a premium to develop buildings with historic value. But we always have to tell them, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s in a flood plain.’ ”
For most would-be developers, Dyer said, the chance of losing everything in a flood is a hurdle too high to overcome.
The cost of flood insurance is another hindrance to development downtown, said Merriam Mayor Ken Sissom.
“I’ve received several calls in the past six months from business owners downtown who are paying two or three times the price of regular insurance,” Sissom said. “They’re asking what the city can do to shrink the flood plain.”
The presentation was meant to explain to the council why the current community center may not be worth preserving, since it is in the flood plain. The council is considering asking voters for a sales tax to build a new community center on the site of the Merriam Aquatic Center, which is not in the flood plain.
Shrinking the flood plain is something the city and the federal government have been pondering for close to two decades, Dyer said.
Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers suggested bulldozing all of the downtown buildings. But Merriam council members were unwilling to sever the city’s ties to its past, Dyer and Sissom said.
The Corps’ backup plan, which the council did approve a few years ago, would construct levies and flood walls between downtown and Turkey Creek and reroute the creek slightly, requiring the removal of two or three buildings, Sissom said.
Merriam has saved the estimated $3 to $5 million for its chunk of the project, Sissom said, but it’s unknown when — or even if — the federal government will commit to spending its share, about $15-20 million.
“We’ve been bypassed every year for years, and I don’t know if it will ever happen,” Sissom said. “It could be 20 years or it could be next year.”
The Corps of Engineers has completed some downstream work on Turkey Creek — in Wyandotte County, closer to where the stream empties into the Kansas River, and many Merriam business owners are convinced that it’s helped upstream cities enough that Merriam could be removed from flood plain designation, Sissom said.
“We’ve seen some significant rains, and it hasn’t come close to flooding,” Sissom said. “But the engineers still say it’s a flood plain.”
It would be great, Sissom said, if the Corps of Engineers did a new study of downtown to see if the downstream improvements have been sufficient, but he’s not optimistic about funding being found even for that.
Downtown Merriam’s last major flood was in 1998.