WORTHINGTON - Both the W.E.L.L. project and the Westminster Presbyterian Church were discussed openly during a Monday afternoon special meeting of the Nobles County Library Board.

Nobles County Library Board Chairwoman Kathy Craun led the informational meeting, which included representatives from Nobles County, library staff, Westminster Presbyterian Church staff and Independent School District 518.

From the church basement, the groups collectively shared perspectives on the ongoing effort to meet the space needs of the library in Worthington.

“I believe this is a critical time for our library board, and the members have all the information they need to be included in the discussion and the plan,” Craun said.

Craun noted that last week’s county board discussion about including the library in the collaborative Welcome, Education, Library and Livability project came as a surprise to the library board.

“We were under a false assumption that it was dead,” she said of the board’s understanding when the W.E.L.L. didn’t receive state bonding money in 2018. She added that she wasn’t told otherwise.  

The W.E.L.L. project is still ongoing, although the scope of the project has changed, clarified Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson.

With the voter-approved half-cent sales tax increase, the city is now planning to keep and renovate the approximately 22,000-square-foot building on the former Campbell Soup property along Second Avenue into an activity center. Pending final approval by the legislature, the city is prepared to move forward with that project, with a goal to open sometime this coming winter.

Other entities once planned in the original design of the project included a new county library and space for Independent School District 518 adult basic education, community education and Early Childhood Family Education. Both the county and school district were asked to decide their involvement moving forward so any additions to the building could be designed appropriately.

Despite the decision to keep the existing building on the property, space for a new library and the district’s community and early childhood education can still be added onto the activity center. However, a second story would be necessary, Johnson said at Monday’s meeting.

Nobles County Commissioner Matt Widboom said the purpose of getting a commitment from the board with regard to the library is so that more specific information related to the space and architectural blueprints can be sought. If supported by the commissioners, then all agencies could proceed with more specific discussions regarding the building’s layout and space needs.

“We didn’t want to take that next step of taxpayer money being spent until we had support from all boards,” Widboom explained Monday. The commissioners could not cast a vote last week, as they were in an informal work session.

During a recent special meeting of the ISD 518 board, members approved in a 5-2 vote to continue exploration and discussion about the W.E.L.L. However, specific design and funding decisions were not made, and more information was requested.

Conversations with the church

With the false impression the W.E.L.L. project was no longer a viable option, the library board has continuously explored other options, Craun said. That included Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Galen Smith said Monday that he agreed to meet with and give a tour of the church to new library director Marjorie Ferguson. Much like a meeting of two years ago between Smith, Johnson and former library director Clint Wolthuizen, Smith said his understanding and intent with any discussion related to the entire or portion of the nearly 60-year-old church property was that there was an underlying “if” present.

“We as a church have never said we want to sell our building,” he said. “All we’ve said all along the way is if someone is interested, we would have a conversation with them.”

Any financial information shared with library staff regarding the property was based on the assessed and insured values, Smith clarified.

Any decision to sell the property, Smith said, would have to be approved by the church’s session, congregation and the Presbytery of Minnesota Valley, the regional council that oversees Westminster in Worthington and more than 50 other Presbyterian churches across southwest Minnesota. No such decisions have been made, he reiterated.

Smith added that while he couldn’t speak for the entire church board or congregation, based on his conversation with church members and the board, the church would consider selling.

“It’s just conversations and speculations, really, at this point,” he said.

In Ferguson’s view, the church’s renovation into a library seems to be the most viable option of those she’s considered since she began her new position last month.

“We needed parking, we needed green space, we needed a good location,” she said. “This building fit all those things.”

The location would allow room for the Nobles County Art Center and continued space for the Manna Food Pantry, she said.

Ferguson added that she never intended to speak at last week’s county board work session. After getting the impression the commissioners were moving forward, she decided to speak about her reservations regarding the proposed W.E.L.L. project.

“I sensed everybody in the room was unhappy with my concerns and reservations that I discussed, so then I felt like I had to discuss other options,” she said, commenting about her decision to mention the church property.

At this point, there’s no information regarding costs to remodel the church facility, Ferguson said.

“I do believe that I am a good steward of the community’s money and I wouldn’t enter into anything without knowing all the numbers in advance,” she said, adding that if the discussion continues, appropriate professionals would be consulted before a final decision was made.

Widboom, who was the only county commissioner present at Monday’s meeting, said that while he cannot speak for the other commissioners, he gets the impression that most support the W.E.L.L. concept.

“I certainly hope that we can vet every avenue and have every discussion about that scenario before we bring another potential option to the table,” he said.

He added that the county is approaching more bonding flexibility now than in previous years. One of two bond payments remaining on the Prairie Justice Center is to be paid off in the 2020 budget and the final payment to follow in 2021, Johnson said. That opens the potential to bond for a library project without an impact to taxpayers.

“We’ve waited a long time for a library,” Craun said. “I think we all have a viable concern about services and accessibility to the public and this community, and we’ve come to a juncture where we have some options and we need to decide which option we feel is the best and need to move forward with that.”

Monday’s meeting concluded with a tour of the church building. Smith led the tour for library staff and board members.

The library board is expected to consider its future involvement in the W.E.L.L. project at its regular 4 p.m. May 13 meeting in the lower level of the library. At that same meeting, the board is also to consider whether or not it pursues future discussion with the church or to explore other possibilities for a new home.