A tight city budget won't put the brakes on plans for the city to spend $1.1 million to expand the Carnegie Library building downtown.
City commissioners on a 3-2 vote agreed to move forward on plans to renovate the 104-year-old building at Ninth and Vermont streets so that it can be used by the city's Parks and Recreation Department and serve as offices for the new National Heritage Area promoting the region's Civil War history.
"I think we have had an empty building in a prime location in downtown Lawrence for too long," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said, referring to the fact the building has been vacant since the Lawrence Arts Center moved from the location in 2002. "I know it will be a tricky time, but I think we need to move ahead."
Commissioners Mike Amyx and Sue Hack joined Highberger in directing staff members to prepare the project to be bid this summer. Commissioner Rob Chestnut and Mayor Mike Dever - who as expected was elected by his fellow commissioners Tuesday to serve a one-year term as mayor - voted against moving forward.
"I like the design, and I like the uses that have been proposed for the building," Chestnut said. "The issue for me is the funding."
Chestnut said he's concerned that the city has too many other urgent needs - he cited replacing aging fire engines as an example - that makes now a bad time to proceed.
Commissioners did leave themselves an opportunity to pull back on the project at a later date. Commissioners gave architects the approval to prepare the necessary bid documents for the project, but commissioners still could decide not to put the project up for bid after receiving a report from city staff members about the city's capacity to issue future debt.
Staff members, though, did tell commissioners that they are concerned that the building - which in the future could be rented out by parks and recreation for wedding receptions and other events - will deteriorate if it continued to sit empty. City Manager David Corliss also said the city likely would lose about $98,000 in federal grant money if the project weren't under way by August.
"For us to not take advantage of the grant, I don't think that would be a smart thing for us in terms of our relationship with our federal legislators," Hack said. "They put work into getting us the grant."