Wichita library debate: ‘We’ve done this before’

There’s a “Groundhog Day” feel to the current debate over Wichita’s library system for the people who direct it.

Seven years of planning produced a plan for a new downtown central library at Second and McLean. Money had been allocated in the city’s capital improvements plan. Plans were progressing toward construction within a couple of years.

And then came an internal finance report a month ago warning that the city lacked the borrowing ability to build the $29 million facility. The Wichita City Council yanked it out of the capital improvements plan in favor of raising private funding for the building, or letting voters decide whether to raise taxes to build it.

Now, in true time-loop fashion made famous by actor Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day,” the entire library system is under scrutiny for the second time in seven years at City Hall. Council members are suggesting the city’s centralized system branched out around the downtown library may not be the best – or cheapest – alternative for the future.

Library officials disagree, calling the new downtown library plan the best, most cost-effective plan available.

“They’ve brought up some interesting observations looking at other libraries, but we’ve studied all those in the past,” said Steve Roberts, the library board president. “It’s in the master plan. We have this hub-and-spoke system in Wichita because it’s the most efficient way to deliver service.

“Quite frankly, it’s a cost thing. It may not be our preferred model, but it is for what we can afford.”

Roberts and Cynthia Berner Harris, the library system’s director, told The Eagle last week that the new library may be the cheapest option before the city: De-emphasizing the downtown library as Oklahoma City has in favor of larger branch libraries means every one of the city’s branches would have to be enlarged. For example, the popular Westlink branch – Wichita’s only library west of the Big Ditch – is only 10,000 square feet. Oklahoma City’s newest branches are 35,000 square feet.

“Back when the master plan was conducted in 2006, we came up with several different scenarios,” Berner-Harris said. “One looked at what would happen if you really didn’t have a central branch but a slightly larger regional branch to serve the core, with branches around it.

“The issue was … our branches aren’t large enough to accommodate that. The capital cost of that plan made it one of the most expensive options out there.”

One option that hasn’t been vetted yet is the possibility of eliminating the downtown library in favor of an administrative center and processing facility, again like Oklahoma City.

There’s the issue of a temporary remodel, floated by some council members as a way to buy time until the economy improves enough to make building a new downtown library affordable.

Roberts said city public works officials have estimated a remodel at $5.3 million. Council members say local builders claim the building’s utilities and electrical systems could be updated for $3 million.

However, any work on the building triggers Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to bring the 1960s building into handicapped accessibility compliance, again a costly tab, Roberts said.

“For example, the elevators would have to be gutted. That’s expensive in and of itself,” he said. “We have a board member with a hip injury, and it was all we could do awhile back to get that member to a meeting.”

City Council member Janet Miller, in whose District 6 the new library would fall, said she agrees with the board’s assessment – a good plan for a new library is the best option for the city. The problem is the money to build it.

“I think we have a great plan based on very solid research and lots of public input,” Miller said. “That said, we’re in a financial situation where we’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it. The economic landscape has changed a lot in Wichita and we’re in a position where we’re going to have to determine what the financing alternatives are.”

When the council pulled the library out of the capital improvements plan last month, board members were urged to begin private fundraising as soon as possible. Miller said she’s skeptical that $30 million can be raised privately.

Other options include a sales tax ballot initiative or cutting other CIP projects out of the plan to permit library bonding.

Roberts said the board would welcome further conversations with the City Council on the library system’s future.

“We’re always open to meeting with the council,” he said, “although we’ve done this before. We’re always ready to go back and re-examine what we’ve done.”

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