Lemay community, aquatic center to open as scheduled in 2014, but at new location

Some local veterans upset community center to be constructed inside Jefferson Barracks

By Gloria Lloyd

The long-planned $12 million Lemay community and aquatic center will open as scheduled in the summer of 2014, but at a new site.

After studies detected a massive sinkhole on the original location, at Broadway and Kingston, county officials now plan to build the center at an alternate site inside Jefferson Barracks Park, at Grant Shelter. The county will tear down the shelter, which hosts a number of weddings and veterans’ events, to make way for the aquatic complex.

The idea of building a large aquatic center inside Jefferson Barracks Park, however, has upset some local veterans.

Noel Stasiak, who served in the Army during the Vietnam-War era and retired after 26 years in the Navy, said he has heard from many local veterans who believe the community center complex will disrupt the peacefulness of the park.

“We consider it hallowed ground, and for St. Louis County to come through on a whim and say, ‘We’ll just tear down Grant’s Shelter,’… The consensus amongst the groups I’ve talked to is that they should just keep their hands off Jefferson Barracks and just leave it be,” Stasiak said.

When the county changed the center’s location, county employees reached out to Friends of Jefferson Barracks and the boards that oversee the park and Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery and only heard from one veteran upset with the plans, said Beth Letscher, assistant vice president and south county sector specialist of the Economic Council. She is willing to listen to any concerns that residents have about the location, she added.

Veteran and former Jefferson Barracks Park ranger Jack Grothe said the feeling he gets from his fellow veterans is that they generally oppose the new location, but do not want to speak out against either the county or aquatic center.

“‘If you’re gonna build the thing, just build it somewhere else’ — I think that’s the feeling of most veterans,” he said. “But it’s kind of hard for Grandpa, a World War II or Vietnam veteran, to deny the kids a water park. Nobody’s against the water park, as long as it’s not in the boundaries of Jefferson Barracks. Build it anywhere — just don’t build it in Jefferson Barracks.”

Grothe said Jefferson Barracks is important to both military historians and in many local veterans’ personal history. He just returned from Gettysburg National Military Park, he noted, and the idea of an aquatic center being built inside that park would be unthinkable.

“They should have had some type of public forum, because it’s a very historical park,” Stasiak said.

Jefferson Barracks is already the “most heavily programmed” county park, and the prospective site is in an area of the park already heavily used for recreation, Letscher said.

“We think it’s actually going to be an excellent addition without disrupting the historic nature of the park,” she said. “It’s going to be directly adjacent to a number of soccer and baseball fields that are lit already … It’s in a separate area from the museums and the military installation, and it’s away from the national cemetery.”

County workers hope to schedule the formal groundbreaking ceremony and community celebration for early June, and construction would start a week or two later. Switching construction to the new site has caused no delays in the construction schedule.

The plans for the 40,000-square-foot building, designed by St. Louis-based architecture firm Cannon Design, can transfer to the Grant Shelter site with no modifications, said Andrew Ruben, senior vice president of real estate and community development for the Economic Council.

No local tax dollars are being used for the funding of the aquatic and community center, which is being paid for primarily through proceeds and lease payments to the St. Louis County Port Authority, a division of the Economic Council, by Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns the River City Casino in Lemay, in addition to a $475,000 federal grant. The center will be available to all county residents for an entry fee similar to that charged by other county parks, with operating costs paid for by those entry fees and a 1-percent sales tax at the casino.

The council always knew the original aquatic center location had several sinkholes, as is common throughout both Jefferson Barracks Park and Lemay itself, Ruben said. In December, however, studies indicated that sinkhole conditions at the site were worse than originally thought.

“The discovery of a new sinkhole, a very large one, a very deep one, dramatically changed the issues on the site,” he said.

The new site is one of the original sites identified as possible locations of the aquatic center five years ago, when county officials oversaw a complete review of all possible sites. That previous legwork allowed the selection of the alternate site to proceed quickly. Six weeks after county officials learned about the major sinkhole at the original site, they completed studies and approved the second site.

“We’re not starting over in any way,” Ruben said. “We’re literally picking it up and dropping it on the new site without any loss of schedule or loss of design time.”

The new site was the clear standout of all the alternate sites, Ruben said, and carries several advantages over the old one.

The first site required the county to purchase two commercial properties to develop the land, but the new property is entirely located inside Jefferson Barracks Park, which the county already owns. Some of the funds used to conduct the additional site studies on the Grant Shelter land came from funds that would have been used for the purchase of the commercial lots and to cap the sinkholes at the Broadway and Kingston site. The site is also already connected to utilities, due to Grant Shelter.

The original site had no pre-existing utility wiring. Overall, even with the additional sinkhole studies, the cost of the project has not increased with the switch to a new site.

“If you look at it from the air, it is literally the only six-acre parcel with no sinkholes anywhere on the site,” Ruben said.

Lemay was underwater in the 1993 flood, he noted.

“If anything like that ever happens again, the Community and Aquatic Center will be like Noah’s Ark,” Ruben added.

The new site also has the advantage of a “gorgeous” sight line and neighboring athletic fields for baseball and Frisbee golf.

“It’s actually stunning views, because you’re sort of looking down across Great Road,” Ruben said. “And the existing ball fields and facilities really points to having almost an athletic complex feel … Some of (the selection is) for aesthetics, some for functionality, and some of it is there’s less risk in building on the site.”

However, the original site at the tip of Jefferson Barracks Park was loved by the public, Ruben said, which is what prompted its original selection over the alternate site.