Man revives idea for library-training center combo in Wichita

Max Cole has an idea to blend learning and job training under the banner of Wichita’s library system.

It’s an idea that’s gaining traction at City Hall as council members consider reshaping the system into the library of the future.

Cole, with the support of District 3 council member James Clendenin, has floated the possibility of establishing a 45,000-square-foot high-tech library and training center at his Wichita Mall, 4031 E. Harry. It’s a scaled-down revival of an idea from last year that earned the Wichita entrepreneur a rebuff from library officials.

But now, with the city looking for alternatives to a $30 million new central library and with systems that emphasize bigger branches at the expense of central libraries gaining interest at City Hall, some council members say it’s time to take another look at Cole’s suggestion.

“We need to keep our eyes wide open on this deal,” council member Jeff Blubaugh said. “I’m really glad to have a guy like Max Cole who’s a doer involved in this discussion.”

“If you can partner with a private developer,” Clendenin said, “the developer makes money on the lease, and the city saves money because it doesn’t have to build a building and it saves money on building maintenance. If we want to try a central branch system with a central distribution point, we could do it – for a lot less money than everybody’s talking about.

“Plus, there are some very big people in this town with some great ideas for libraries, libraries that are more than book museums, places where kids come and learn things they’d never even dream about learning in the school system.”

Cole and Clendenin’s library plan targets underserved areas of the city – primarily in northeast, south and central Wichita – with the idea that library officials and interactive high-tech resources should be combined to help underprivileged children find a vocation.

Where the money would come from for such a plan is less clear. Cynthia Berner-Harris, the director of the city’s library system, said the library’s $8 million budget – the lowest major-city library budget in Kansas – doesn’t have the capacity to handle staffing and operational costs for a new southeast Wichita library. But she said the library board supports the idea of replacing the southeast Planeview branch, which closed in 2003.

Cole thinks libraries can help young people become enthusiastic about possible vocations.

“My idea is to ... get them in here and introduce them to things they enjoy,” said Cole. “Then get them into computer programming, coding, whatever, where they can name their own ticket. It improves the training and education and spirit of those kids and gets them in a position to be our workforce of the future.”

Cole’s mall space, best known as Office This, is equipped to handle the latest computer technology, he said. He and Clendenin said the city could expand the space for the library for between $2 million and $3 million. Clendenin said he expects a favorable lease can be worked out with Cole, but the south Wichita entrepreneur hasn’t finished running the numbers.

“It’s a very ambitious thing, but we’re already equipped for the latest high-tech stuff,” Cole said. “Very low entry for the city, and we can get these kids hooked up with 3-D printers, robotics, things like that.”

Blubaugh, who in August checked out Oklahoma City’s library system – which emphasizes larger branches to bring services closer to residents – said he’s interested in Cole’s proposal.

“If I was controlling the show – which I’m not – and it was my vision, I do like the idea of bringing something new to the library of the future,” Blubaugh said. “I like Max’s ideas about high tech and interaction.”

Some city officials are skeptical. Mayor Carl Brewer, who was on the council in 2003 when the Planeview library was closed, said user numbers were so low that it dictated the closing.

“I don’t know how a library will ever fly down there,” he said.

Cole got the idea from the city’s jobs training initiatives.

“We took part in that, and it was something to see,” he said. “When the kids came in, they were very shy. They didn’t think they amounted to anything. But when they left, they had developed an entire magazine – graphically and with text – and they left as outgoing, sharp kids.”

Cole said it’s time for the city to modernize a library system he described as antiquated, to stop the outflow of Wichitans who need jobs.

“I have no clue why people haven’t done this before now,” Cole said. “In the last 10 years, I don’t think it’s easy for anyone besides Koch Industries to pull in people from Dallas or Denver to move to Wichita, Kansas, to become a part of their company.”

There are no clear next steps at City Hall in the debate over the future of the city’s libraries. Council members want to continue to weigh options like Cole’s idea, while the city’s library board hopes to launch fundraising for a new central library soon.