The fate of a new central library – 10 years in the making – will be decided by the Wichita City Council on Tuesday.
If approved, the $33 million-plus project would be built on land across the street and to the south of Exploration Place, along Second and McLean.
Some City Council members still have questions about the new library: whether it’s necessary, if the location is right, what plans are for the library system as a whole and what would happen with the existing building.
Supporters say the new library won’t just be a library: It will be an advanced learning center with new technology and community gathering spaces.
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The project would be financed with city bonds. The Wichita Public Library Foundation has raised some of the money – about $5.5 of an $8 million campaign.
The city approved initial plans for a new library about 10 years ago. It bought the land for $3.69 million in 2008, just before the economy soured.
Council members will vote Tuesday on letting the project to bid. If that passes, they will have to vote again in a few months to approve a contractor.
Last January, the council voted 5-2 to approve a $1.3 million design by GLMV Architecture.
Council members Pete Meitzner and Jeff Blubaugh were the no votes, saying they were unsure of Wichita residents’ priorities after voters defeated a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax proposal in 2014. That tax would have collected about $400 million over five years for transit, water, street maintenance and job development.
Both still have concerns about building a new library.
“For me there’s a lot of information and I have a lot of questions that I feel that I don’t have all the answers to,” said Meitzner, who represents east Wichita.
“A lot of the constituencies that I visit with are very pleased with what we’ve done with our capital decisions, such as the airport and the Kellogg project. They, like myself, are questioning if the time is right for a big capital project like this.”
Blubaugh, who represents southwest Wichita, agrees.
“I still question not just the new building, but an annual operating expense of the library between $8 (million) and $10 million,” he said. “And when we’re putting less than $8 million into residential streets for the whole city, I still have to question where the best benefit is.”
The new library would have more than $500,000 in additional operating expenses, including $465,780 for 11 new positions.
Mayor Jeff Longwell says it’s no secret that he supports the new library.
“I think we’re going to see something truly special in this community,” Longwell said. “This goes straight to quality of life opportunities I keep talking about. This is not a traditional library. … It’s going to have a tremendous amount of technology, some terrific gathering spaces; it’s going to encourage people to be there whether you want to read a book or gather with your friends.”
Longwell said there has been a significant amount of private funding for the library, which is hard to turn down.
“How do you say no to those kinds of opportunities?”
If approved, the project could break ground this summer, said Don Barry, chairman of the Wichita Public Library Foundation board of directors.
Council member James Clendenin, who represents southeast Wichita, said he was not a supporter of the “same old, same old library.”
But he supports having an advanced learning center, particularly since it would allow access to technology by people who don’t currently have access to it.
Several council members agreed that the city needs to look at how the library system operates citywide with its branch system.
Meitzner says he has concern about putting more money into the library when the number of people who physically visit the central library and branches has gone down.
The total door count for Wichita libraries has gone down more than 10 percent from 2013 to 2015, from about 1.1 million to about 980,000, according to library data.
Part of the reason for the decrease is that the libraries have had to cut back on programs and hours in the past two years, said Kevin McWhorter, first vice president of the Wichita Library Board and a member of the Wichita Library Foundation Board.
The central library had 268,834 visits last year, he said.
Barry, the library foundation chairman, says other cities that have put in modern libraries have doubled their traffic.
“With all of the new collaboration in this new facility, we are going to be able to increase visitor usage,” McWhorter said.
“We need to realize that book depositories of the past are not what libraries of the future are about,” McWhorter said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to come to conclusions that would show the advanced learning center is not going to just be a depository of books from the old library. We agree that would not be an efficient use of taxpayer funds.”
The current central library at 223 S. Main was built in 1967.
The building has several Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues, McWhorter said, including elevators that are too small and upper-level libraries that are noncompliant.
The ADA issues were identified about 10 years ago, he said, but the city was given a reprieve since it had plans for a new building in the works.
If a new library building is constructed, the old building could be used as an extension for spill-over conventions, banquets and other events from Century II, city officials say.
Initially, library officials looked at renovating that building for a cost of nearly $22 million.
If the proposal passes Tuesday, it’s unclear what will happen to it.
“We definitely don’t want to see this building taken down,” McWhorter said.
▪ Increase the square footage of the library from 89,000 to more than 105,000
▪ Include meeting rooms that could function independently or together, with seating for 300 people
▪ More than 120 computers, up from 31 now
▪ Space for people to bring and charge their own devices
▪ Children’s courtyard and storytelling rooms
▪ Commons area
▪ Drive-through window to pick up books
▪ Free access to Ancestry.com in the research center
▪ Outdoor terrace
▪ Circle drive off McLean for public transit and buses to enter
Library circulation by location, December 2015
Central library: 28%
West branches: 24%
East branches: 24%
North branches: 8%
South branches: 16%
Information: Wichita Public Library