City commissioners confirmed Wednesday it could cost at least $30 million to build the type of library they think the community deserves.
But at a study session with library planners, commissioners said the project should keep moving full speed ahead.
"We have grossly underfunded our library for years, and now it is time to step up to the plate," Mayor Boog Highberger said.
City commissioners gave support for most of the general goals that a group of architects and library consultants have proposed for a new downtown facility. Those goals include a new building that would be 125,000 to 140,000 square feet, up from 52,000 square feet today; an increase in circulation that would put the library in the 75th percentile of all Kansas communities, up from the 50th percentile today; a minimum of 148 public computer terminals, up from 47 today; and a significant increase in meeting space.
"The planners have done a good job of not trying to create the Mercedes-Benz of libraries but rather a quality library that would serve us well for a long time," City Commissioner David Schauner said.
But whether the public will buy it is an open question. Many details are up in the air. Commissioners did not discuss possible ways to pay for construction of a library. In fact, library planners did not give any cost estimates for the facility, but after the meeting several commissioners said they had an idea of the enormity of the project.
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"I would say $30 million is probably a minimum for the total cost," Highberger said.
Commissioners have long said a public vote to support a tax increase likely would be necessary for the project to move forward.
"I have always thought that the public will be the ones who decide whether a new library is needed or not," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said.
Talk of a referendum didn't surface much Wednesday, but there was a brief discussion that the earliest a public vote could happen would be April 2007.
A 'deplorable' situation
Paying for the project's construction costs is only part of the financial considerations for commissioners. Library leaders also said state benchmarks show Lawrence ranks in the bottom 15 percent of per capita spending for its library.
Consultant Jeffrey Scherer said the library's annual operating budget of $2.6 million needs to increase by about $1 million, with more spending as the population grows. Scherer said the community should be prepared to increase its per capita funding for the library's operations from about $26 per person to about $40 per person. Scherer said that would bring Lawrence up to the 50th percentile.
"The revenue situation, I think, right now is really deplorable," Scherer said. "I don't think there is any other way to say it."
But before commissioners tackle any funding issue, they want to settle on a site for the project. Library leaders and commissioners have said the library must remain downtown, but whether the current site at Seventh and Vermont streets is adequate hasn't been determined.
Developers have informally proposed at least five sites for city leaders to consider. Some of those sites are the former Riverfront Mall building at Sixth and New Hampshire streets that is owned by members of The World Company, which publishes the Journal-World; the 900 block of New Hampshire Street; parts of the 1000 blocks of New Hampshire and Massachusetts streets; parts of the 800 block of Pennsylvania Street; parts of the 800 and 900 blocks of New Hampshire Street; and areas in the 600 and 700 blocks of Vermont Street.
Commissioners said they were interested in receiving official proposals from developers in the next couple of months, but they stopped short of saying they thought a public-private partnership was the best way to proceed with the project.
Library leaders did show commissioners several concepts for a new library built on the existing site. The one that piqued some interest was a plan that would build a new 165,000-square-foot, two-story library by stretching into the current library parking lot. Parking would be replaced by a 260-space parking garage beneath the building.
A concept also was presented for a 130,000-square-foot building south of the current library where the Lawrence Senior Center and Fire Station No. 1 are located. A new two-story, 440-space garage would be built to the north where the library is today. Steve Clark, an architect with Gould Evans, said the idea hadn't garnered much enthusiasm because of difficulties related to relocating the senior center and the fire station.