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Town hall meetings planned to discuss library site options

WORTHINGTON -- Officials with the Nobles County Library have scheduled three town hall meetings later this month to present information on the four sites being proposed for possible construction of a new Worthington branch library.

During a nearly two-hour board work session Wednesday, Nobles County commissioners met with Library Director Julie Wellnitz and Vetter-Johnson architect Steve Johnson regarding information that will be presented at those meetings.

The first meeting is slated for 6 to 8 p.m. July 22 at a yet-to-be-determined location in Adrian. Two meetings are planned on July 23 -- at 11 a.m. in the boardroom, located on the third floor of the Nobles County Government Center; and from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Farmer's Room of the government center, 315 10th St., Worthington.

In addition, the presentation boards will be on display at the Nobles County Fair next month in a designated booth for county government. People will be able to vote for their favorite site with sticky notes, and are also encouraged to give written comments. Library staff and county commissioners will also be at the booth at designated times to answer questions and take comments.

Design specifics

Nobles County commissioners have discussed potential for a new library building in Worthington since 2007, and previous boards had already ruled out a renovation-expansion at the existing library site on 12th Street, downtown. Also previously ruled out was the former Campbell's Soup site along First Avenue, due to its proximity to the railroad. That site, however, is one of the four potential sites to be presented in the public meetings.

Other potential sites include the former swimming pool site along West Lake Avenue, the existing public works site on Diagonal Road and the existing Lampert Lumber site at the intersection of 10th Street and 10th Avenue.

Following a needs assessment in 2009, which identified a new library should be approximately 30,000 square feet -- nearly double the current 16,000-square-foot facility -- Wellnitz explained again Wednesday that the needs of library patrons could be met with a 24,000-square-foot facility. That would not include the 3,000 square feet of garage and office space needed to co-locate the Plum Creek Library System on site.

The project cost of $7 to $8 million would not include land acquisition. Wellnitz said there is a potential to get grants, adding that $1 million in state grant funds is currently unclaimed, and that money can be used for libraries that house the regional system in their building.

Commissioner Matt Widboom asked if the new library design provided enough space to meet the library's present and future needs.

"In trying to pour over the numbers and justification for the new library, to me, a lot of the issue is a lack of space for the children's programs," Widboom said.

Wellnitz said it isn't just the children's space, but an across-the-board lack of room in the library.

With multi-purpose space worked into the design, Steve Johnson said the new library would be flexible for children's programs or teen and adult programs.

Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson suggested that space be discussed in the future, once the site has been chosen and commissioners have designs instead of concepts to consider. That would also be the time to seek funding partners for the project.

To update commissioners on library usage, Wellnitz said there were 7,025 visitors to the library in June, and 48 new users were registered. In 2012, the library averaged 44 new users each month.

"We are definitely not seeing a decrease in library usage," she said. "Yes, (usage) is changing, but it is not decreasing."

Site evaluation

The four proposed library sites will be displayed on presentation boards for the town hall meetings. Included will be the engineer's identified pros and cons of each location and opinions on probable cost.

"We've been hesitant to go out and get a cost on the land, not knowing which site is appropriate," Tom Johnson said.

"There are general unknowns at every site," added Steve Johnson.

Wellnitz said the public could be provided with information on what may be the least expensive site to build on and what may be the most expensive, but other costs could arise if soil remediation is needed prior to construction.

"The swimming pool site is the only one that we could say is a pretty clean site," said Steve Johnson, adding that the Campbell's Soup site would be the most concern, based on some of the information received on that property.

"I think it's important for the public to know there are these issues ... with some of these sites that would not make it favorable," Commissioner Don Linssen added.

Numerous aspects were considered in evaluating each site, said Steve Johnson, adding that key components included convenient access, land availability, orientation of the building on the land, topographical characteristics, zoning regulations, setbacks and parking requirements, and access to utilities.

Existing library

Widboom questioned points made during the meeting about the need for more space for programming.

"We have a basement that has a lot of room in it," he said, adding that some of his constituents suggest the library utilize the space currently available downstairs rather than build a new facility.

The Nobles County Historical Society and Nobles County Arts Center are both located in the basement.

"I went through the basement again the other day and saw there was a lot of potential to address our short-term needs," Widboom said.

Wellnitz pointed out that both the arts center and the historical society would need to move out, and for the library to utilize both levels would require additional staffing.

"I don't see how that structure would be conducive to a more meaningful library experience, or that the infrastructure meets the needs of technology," Wellnitz said.

Linssen encouraged Wellnitz and the architect to be prepared for those types of questions at the town hall meetings.

Jacoba Nagel, president of the Nobles County Historical Society, along with David Benson, a member of the historical society, the arts center and the Friends of the Library, both spoke Wednesday about the ability of both organizations to use the entire building's space if the library were to move elsewhere.

"We are very interested in staying there, if possible," Nagel said.

"The arts center is really anxious to expand and have more of a presence," Benson added.

Vision for the future

Jean Meester, a member of the Nobles County Library Board, said she thought the Campbell's Soup site was too close to the lake and railroad, while board member Cathy Craun encouraged the board to be visionaries when it comes to library space.

"Our focus needs to be literacy -- books and cultural literacy," she said. "It happens in our library, in our schools, in our churches."

Cheryl Avenel-Navara, representing the Friends of the Library, said there is a lot of value in the library, and the existing space isn't adequate.

"There's no room for us to have meetings that are open to the public, we don't have book signings, we don't have author speeches ... because we don't have space," she said. "We need amenities -- we need things to bring young people to the area. The library is one of those places where people can congregate, be educated, become involved."

Commissioner Marv Zylstra, who has served 10 years on the county board, admitted Wednesday that he's a little frustrated about the lack of action on the library project.

"I think we have an opportunity here, as a board, to make a difference, make an investment into our community ... make an investment in our youth," Zylstra said. "I know roads and bridges are important, but ... at some point we need to make a decision."

Zylstra said he, too, has had questions from the public about the amount of money spent on library designs, but he said he hopes that after getting some input from the public, the board can make a decision.

"We made the decision (that remodeling the existing site) wasn't going to work," he said. "We looked at the Campbell's site and at one point we said we weren't interested, it wasn't going to work."

"I appreciate Widboom's concern and talking to his constituents about remodeling or expanding," Board Chair Bob Demuth Jr. added. "I, too, had a problem. I got over it. My fellow commissioners ... made an informed decision and we don't need to reopen that up. It, too, will pass."