A divided Wichita City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to proceed with planning for a new downtown library.
The vote means the city will spend about $519,000 for a charette – a weeklong planning session involving the council, the library board and other segments of the community – to craft a design concept for the new library. The result will be preliminary design drawings first requested by the council a year ago.
The vote is not a commitment by the council to proceed with building a new library, although there is strong support from members of the community and some council members.
“This project has been on the table for way too long. I’m appreciative of the fact we can feel comfortable moving forward,” council member Lavonta Williams said.
The future of a new library has been in limbo, with plans for a $45 million facility being scaled back to $30 million over the years and council members saying private donations would be needed.
Because the city has paid off more than $170 million in debt, it now has the bonding capacity to build the library and keep debt ratios under established city standards, City Manager Robert Layton said Tuesday.
Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh and council member Pete Meitzner voted no on the proposal. They tried – and failed procedurally – to limit the city’s financial exposure moving forward to the expenses surrounding the weeklong meetings.
Blubaugh asked Layton where a new library fit in the community’s priorities, based on ACT ICT community meetings and surveys last year.
Community members brought up the library during the community engagement process, Layton said, but it was not identified as a key infrastructure need.
Meitzner said the dynamics around the $30 million library proposal changed dramatically when the economy crashed in 2008.
“Things changed, from my perspective, a lot,” he said. “The year 2008 was a big change for a lot of people.”
Meitzner also asked if library or city officials had seriously pursued offers from local entrepreneurs Max Cole and Gary Oborny – Cole’s to house a high-tech library in the Wichita Mall and Oborny’s for space downtown.
The question was never clearly answered.
The library won the support of longtime critic James Clendenin, who noted that the council asked a year ago for the library to be supported by private fundraising that will require the preliminary design concept.
“The big question we are faced with here is to spend or not to spend. And what do we spend it on? What is a need and what is a want in our community?” council member Clendenin said.
“If it’s a place to stack books and expect them to come,” then the library is a want, rather than a need, said Clendenin, who is a big supporter of the high-tech concept at the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University.
Clendenin said he expects private and corporate support to mitigate some of the new library’s tab to Wichita taxpayers.
The vote carried with it the surprise public announcement that the Friends of the Wichita Public Library have kicked off that fundraising with a commitment to raise $2.5 million.
The message from supporters of the new library – including council member Janet Miller – is that it already has been planned for the high-tech needs of the future, even though some council opponents have said that their direction for a high-tech facility has largely been ignored.
After the meeting, library board president Steve Roberts noted that the building has been meticulously planned for “flexibility for the future.” And he committed the board to continuing with that flexibility in mind.
“None of us know the future,” Roberts observed.
The new downtown library drew broad support at the meeting – from children and their mothers who use it, to economic development planners who say it’s essential to build a Wichita that can attract and retain millennials and their families.
“We’re talking about building a world-class city. If we’re going to keep those students here we’ve got to build this type of city,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, agreed.
“We really need to look at the bigger picture and do things in innovative ways to keep our young professionals in Wichita,” she said.