Library for the future

It’s time to advance the plan for a new downtown libary.
It’s time to advance the plan for a new downtown libary.

Forget the past eight years of indecision on replacing the Central Library. The arrival of 2015 has presented the Wichita City Council with a fresh, inspiring opportunity to build a new $30 million downtown learning hub around the future.

The city long has had the site (Second and McLean) and a funding strategy (bonding, through the city’s capital improvement plan), as well as preliminary designs. So there has been no question about where it would go and how it could be paid for, and leaders have acknowledged that the 48-year-old current building’s infrastructure and accessibility issues cannot be ignored forever.

But multiple councils have slow-walked and essentially sidelined a new downtown library. Some leaders were understandably uncertain about the borrowing involved amid the downturn and in how public libraries fit into an increasingly digital future. Some seemed to be holding out for alternative visions that were exciting but fiscally and therefore politically unrealistic, even as ideas were collected from stakeholders during community meetings last summer.

It’s now time for the council to advance the plan, especially with the Wichita Public Library Foundation committing to pay for the $1.31 million needed to finalize a design and construction documents and to enable the next mayor and council to proceed to bid late this year. Council members should authorize the design phase at Tuesday’s meeting.

As it funds the design process, the foundation aims to raise $5 million, including $2.5 million to pay for the technology needed for the new site. Council action Tuesday could put the center on a pace to break ground next year and open in 2018.

Part of the new thinking about the future is that the existing building, rather than being razed, could be reused as additional event space for Century II next door. That would preserve what has been a key downtown architectural asset.

But it’s talk of the new building itself that stirs the imagination – and has won the endorsement of Wichita State University president John Bardo and Wichita school superintendent John Allison. It would have more than 100 public computers, and even more electrical outlets for personal devices. Though the square footage would be only somewhat more than in the current building, the public space would increase dramatically.

There would be places to “come together and collaborate,” as library director Cynthia Berner put it.

This would be no book museum, but rather in line with the Aspen Institute’s vision of “a trusted community resource and an essential platform for learning, creativity and innovation.”

“In my mind it’s a game changer,” City Manager Robert Layton said.

But first the current City Council must partner with the foundation and proceed to the final design phase for the new library. Then Wichita voters must elect a new mayor and City Council members with the will to build it.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman