WORTHINGTON - With a fresh perspective on what has been a more than decade-long discussion on the need for a larger library within the city of Worthington, Nobles County Library Director Marjorie Ferguson asked commissioners during a Monday morning work session to consider the possibility of renovating an existing church into a new county library.
Ferguson, just three weeks into her position, said she’s familiarized herself with past discussions, looked at sites once talked about for a new library and drove around town looking for options. What she found was the Westminster Presbyterian Church - a 27,000-square-foot building situated on 4.5 acres with ample green space and a large parking lot along Clary Street.
“It comes with more than enough adequate parking, it’s extremely unique and a beautiful design,” Ferguson said. “It is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for this space and structure.”
Ferguson toured the church after learning it was for sale - and had her library staff tour it with her on a subsequent visit. She said the building is structurally sound and in a good neighborhood.
“I would like you to envision what it could possibly be and how it would represent our community,” she told commissioners.
Ferguson said the two-story structure could house the main library services on one floor, with both an adult and children’s wing. There would be plenty of meeting and office space on the lower level. She also said Manna Food Pantry could remain in its space, and there would be ample room for the Nobles County Art Center if it wants to relocate as well.
Ferguson also told commissioners the project could be done for far less than the estimated $9.5 million to construct a new, 25,000-square-foot library building in the community, and it meets the county’s desire to collaborate.
Ferguson said in talking with the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian, she learned the membership in the church has declined to the point where the large space is no longer needed. She told commissioners the church would like to sell the property and either find or build a smaller space for worship.
“They would be interested in us as a buyer if you all were willing to consider it,” Ferguson said. “Guys … I know I’m asking for a stretch. I am fresh eyes on all of this. I just think it’s an amazing thing.
“I think fundraising could be done to support the project,” she added.
Ferguson’s comments followed a lengthy discussion led by commissioners on whether to participate with the city of Worthington and District 518 on a collaborative project on Second Avenue, southwest of the fire hall.
Referred to as the W.E.L.L., the space would incorporate the city’s plans for an indoor sports complex in the existing blue Morton building, with a proposed addition that would meet some of District 518’s space needs for community and adult basic education, early childhood family education programming and the Nobles County Integration Collaborative. If the county were to join in, the proposal would be to construct a new library and create some space for satellite offices for community services programs like child and teen checkups, social services and possibly the Statewide Health Improvement Program.
Initially, the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce was invited to the discussion with the idea of incorporating a welcome center to the structure as well. Though the agency initially backed away with the hopes of relocated to the Bioscience Advancement Center north of Interstate 90 in the industrial park, that space is no longer an option.
“We have been looking at all possibilities,” chamber director Darlene Macklin told the county board. “We know we have to do something to our building or find something. We’re interested in collaborating.”
If the Chamber wants space in the building, it would also need office space for the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. and the Worthington Regional Healthcare Foundation, Macklin said.
“We’ve agreed amongst us if there’s an opportunity to get in, we’re exploring that,” said chamber board vice president Brad Meester.
Commissioner Matt Widboom said the city is moving forward, and the county has remained in talks with the city and the school board. He has made it known in the past that he wants the county commissioners to make a decision one way or another on the library this year.
“We’ve been talking this around and never, ever sat down together,” Commissioner Gene Metz said. “If we’re trying to fast track this and not hear from all parties, I have a hard time with that.”
Ferguson said the county’s only skin in the game is the library - and perhaps some community services space. For the county to collaborate on this project with the city and the school, she said, isn’t a good fit.
“I don’t feel like this project meets our needs,” she said. “I’m not sure shared space is adequate for what we need. I have a concern about the identity of the public library.”
Ferguson said she also has concerns about the soil contamination on the proposed site and noted that there wasn’t enough green space in the design to meet the library’s needs. Green space is needed for children’s programming during the summer.
“I want us to choose the right project with a lot of forthright and planning,” Ferguson said. “I want us to be good stewards of our money and I think we can do better, speaking for the library.
“The library definitely needs space. I understand that this has been an ongoing discussion,” she added. “We need a good space, but we need a better space than this. I don’t want to be the wet towel on this project, by any means. I do believe there is better space out there that does meet our needs.”
Widboom said many different locations were looked at over many years, but commissioners hesitated in doing anything because the collaborative effort wasn’t there.
“The residents wanted to see us working together with the other entities and making a shared space,” Widboom said. “That’s why the direction turned toward a facility like this.”
Ferguson responded that the proposed W.E.L.L. project would limit what the library wants to - and should - be.
“Libraries serve everyone, no matter what age or socioeconomic (status),” Ferguson said. “The identity of a public library is very important to me. If this is going to be our one chance to do better than we have, then I want some guarantees.”
Metz said he doesn’t want three entities each building space that could possibly be shared, and said the board is “very seriously looking at the collaboration.”
However, Metz also noted that none of the entities have discussed how space would be used in a collaborative project.
Whether there’s collaboration or not, chamber board president Ryan McGaughey said there’s been a need for a library since he moved to the community 18 years ago.
“It’s been talked about and talked about and talked about,” he said. “At some point we’ve got to stop kicking the thing around and make something happen.”
“Whatever we choose is going to be the library’s one chance to get what it needs,” Ferguson said. “I don’t want to shortchange the library - I don’t want to short-change the community at large who will be paying for it. I want the best for my library.”
In the end, commissioners requested a meeting with representatives of the city, county, school district and library board to further discuss the library issue.