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Friday, July 11, 2014

Will Wichita build new Central Library?

BY BRENT D. WISTROM
The Wichita Eagle

A new Central Library was supposed to be under construction just west of downtown Wichita by now. But whether it will ever be built is now in question. The city has $30 million in its capital improvement budget for a new Central Library. That's far short of the amount the library board has said is needed.

The library board will consider three options over the next few months:

* Build a new library on the southwest corner of Second and McLean, as previously planned, using the $30 million allocated for the project in the city's capital budget.

* Renovate and expand the existing Central Library at 223 S. Main using the $30 million from the capital budget.

* Fix up the existing Central Library and use what's left to help fund new branch libraries in west and southeast Wichita.

In each scenario, library officials would consider seeking donations and grants to improve the system.

A new study from LawKingdon Architecture explores the pros and cons of renovating and expanding the current building.

LawKingdon estimated it would cost $44.7 million to expand and remodel the library. That includes relocating its contents for two years during construction.

That's 4 percent more than the estimated $43 million to build a new state-of-the-art facility on land the city bought in 2008.

However, the library board had endorsed a $48 million plan for the new Central Library early in 2010.

Renovating the current library also would block the proposed expansion of neighboring Century II's Expo Hall and eliminate parking spots in a lot that is already a major frustration for many library users.

Many needs

Several city libraries are in rough shape.

Westlink, the west library at 8515 W. Bekemeyer, is far too small to handle the demand. The tiny branch in Colvin Elementary School in Planeview in southeast Wichita has little to offer adult readers and little foot traffic.

The Central Library, built in 1967, has a leaky roof, an outdated heating and air conditioning system, poor parking and the list goes on.

The top three priorities in the city's library master plan are a new downtown library, a new west Wichita library and a new facility in the underserved southeast part of the city.

But it's taking longer than expected, in part due to the poor economy.

"I don't think the fact that we're going slowly should be interpreted as lack of support for the library or a change in direction," said Cynthia Berner Harris, director of libraries.

It's not just the daunting startup costs that have delayed a new library.

A city budget overview released in July says the new library will require nine more employees, adding $336,480 in annual expense. It expects about $369,000 in other yearly expenses. Meanwhile, the city expects only about $30,000 in new revenue from the proposed library.

Time and money

Jon Roe, a library board member appointed by Mayor Carl Brewer, said Wichitans deserve a modern library and that the city has already delayed the project for too long.

"We've gone way down the road," he said. "We've gone so far down the road that if we scuttle the project now we waste a lot of investment."

Already, the city has conducted surveys, spent countless hours discussing the project and has approved the concept of a new library. The library board approved a building plan for a new central hub, but progress stalled before it advanced to the City council.

In 2008, city officials told The Eagle the new library would open in 2012. Now no one knows whether a new library will open at all.

Roe said he would like to see the city move forward quickly before construction and materials costs increase.

"There are some things a community has to do to remain a vital community," he said. "And it's my opinion that this is one of them."

City Council member Michael O'Donnell, who has been critical of spending on major city projects, said the library needs improvement, but that now is not the time to spend $30 million or more on a new facility because people are out of work and the city needs to save money.

He also questioned the need for a larger library at a time when many are reading on digital e-readers instead of paper books.

"I acknowledge its importance to downtown Wichita and our quality of life," he said. "But when you're looking at something that's $45 million or even $30 million... we just have to be extremely careful."

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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