By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 10 a.m. Wed., Aug. 22:
LINCOLN — The city of Lincoln’s Library Board voted Tuesday night to make a bid for converting the city’s old arena, the Pershing Center, into a new bigger, better downtown library.
A six-month, privately funded $95,000 study by library consultants concluded that rather than renovate the main downtown library, it would make more sense to either renovate the Pershing Center for $40 million or demolish it and build a new library for $43 million. The downtown library is landlocked by a historic building on the east and private development to the north.
A new $179 million arena under construction on the west end of downtown is replacing the half-century-old Pershing Center
However, a conservative Lincoln business group says many Lincoln people voted to build a new arena with the assumption the city would sell the old arena to a private developer and get it back on the property tax rolls.
Coby Mach, head of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, said this is a rare opportunity to offer up an entire city block downtown for redevelopment and provide tax relief.
“The citizens of this community voted for a new arena, but there were expectations from the community that the Pershing Center would no longer be subsidized by the taxpayers and that’s what’s going to happen if it turns into a library,” Mach said in an interview.
He said LIBA isn’t necessarily opposed to a new downtown library — it just wants Pershing back on the tax rolls.
Library Director Pat Leach declined to comment on LIBA’s view, saying only, “I think they’ve been pretty consistent in that position.”
Despite opposition from LIBA and a government watchdog group, the Library Board voted to proceed with the recommendation and respond to a city request for proposals for Pershing.
It’s not clear how the city would pay for a new library. Leach said that hasn’t been decided, but the city’s capital construction plan lists a new library, with funding half public and half private. A general obligation bond issue — increase in property taxes — could be needed to come up with the public portion.
“I don’t think that the city or the library foundation has $40 million laying around to redevelop Pershing,” Mach said.
The city’s Urban Development Department is accepting proposals from public, private and nonprofit groups through Oct. 1, for what could be done with the Pershing Center. A committee selected by Mayor Chris Beutler will recommend a winner.
The library study says if the Library Board isn’t awarded the Pershing Center site, it will pursue another downtown location.
Mach also is concerned about some of the expensive features planned for the new library, which would be nearly twice as large is the current 64,000-square-foot Bennett Martin Public Library.
The study envisions a “21st century main library” with a café, 250-seat auditorium with green rooms, a black box theater, kitchen, Internet stations and larger adult, children and teen areas. There is no projected increase to the staff of 60.
The plan also includes a 100-person meeting room and two, 30-person meeting rooms. That would be a 256 percent increase in meeting space compared with the existing library.
Mach said the city has private meeting facilities and “a couple” of black box theaters.
“There just seem to be a lot of amenities in this proposal,” he said.
Consultants looked at seven locations for a new library, but prefer the Pershing Center due to its proximity to downtown customers, public transportation and bike traffic, as well as on-site parking for 200 cars. It’s a full city block owned by the city, where other sites would require the purchase of several parcels from private owners, which can be time-consuming and expensive, the study noted.
Other possible locations for a library are in the new arena development west of downtown and in the Antelope Valley Project, a $246 million redevelopment and flood control project the city just completed on the east end of downtown.
If the Pershing Center can’t be gotten, the study said the board could pursue the possibility of leasing space in a private building near the new arena or building on two city-owned sites south of the Harris Overpass.
The library study found Lincoln is about average in terms of overall library space, with 0.669 square feet of library space per Lincolnite, but the main library is small compared with other cities in the study.
The study also found that Lincoln’s libraries aren’t well used, posting the fourth lowest rate among 10 other comparable cities, at 5.59 library visits per person.
Contact Deena Winter at email@example.com.
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