Contentious Marion library moves toward vote

Complicated plan has city leasing space to double the size of the facility

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MARION — The Marion Public Library Board is thinking about how it can best sell the idea of a new library to voters and how best to provide information about a project that is, admittedly, a little tricky to explain — all before a referendum on the idea in March or May.

“It’s been an issue that we’re working with and having some difficulty with as well,” board president John Clemens said. “The word never seems to get out the right way. We’ve had some opposition within the city government and the citizens as well, and they’ve spread some less-than-facts, I’ll say.”

As proposed:

• Ryan Companies, the project developer, would build a mixed-use building on 11th Street, near the current library.

• The city would lease, and eventually own, space in that privately owned building for a 47,000-square-foot library — twice as large as the current library.

• The building would have 20,000 square feet of retail space and also residential space — probably 55 or so apartments — with parking possibly beneath.

• The current 24,500-square-foot library, built 20 years ago at 1095 Sixth Ave., would be bought and razed by Ryan Companies.

The proposal has been contentious and was an issue in the November election. Generally, those who support the concept won election.

But the Marion Library Board, in a nod to public and council pressure, will request a public vote on the issue this spring, even though the proposed financing likely would not require a bond issue. The library will pay the cost of a special election, about $24,000.

why mixed-use?

The library board began examining options for a larger library about six years ago when it realized the city’s population was quickly outgrowing the library’s space.

The original thought was to expand. But a cost-benefit analysis showed that tearing down the current library and building a mixed-use facility across the street would cost less than an expansion.

The idea might have made financial sense but, as Library Director Doug Raber said, it struck a nerve with some who don’t want to see their library demolished.

“It’s not like somebody said, ‘Yeah, let’s tear down the library,’ ” Raber said. “It was more like, ‘What’s the best thing to do?’ ‘Oh, the best thing actually is to build new? OK, let’s do that.’ ”

The cost-benefit analysis, completed by Engberg Anderson Architects, showed that building and furnishing a mixed-use building was the least expensive option, at an estimated cost of $12 million, though other options were close to that price.

But a privately owned building would bring in property tax revenue — a consideration that swayed the library board, board president Clemens said.

The library, as a public building, sits on valuable land but generates no property tax revenue.

Such a development might encourage other development in the Uptown area of Marion, Clemens said.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “That’s really one of the big cornerstones of it and why we decided to try a mixed-use approach. This isn’t just about us. It’s about the community as a whole.”

Cost estimates

Preliminary estimates show a mixed-use building would cost Ryan Companies about $28 million to build.

For the $12 million library, the city would need to contribute about $10 million. Half of that would come from local-option sales tax dollars, City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said. Ryan Companies would pay about $2 million for the current library building. A capital campaign would cover the remainder.

Because local-option sales tax dollars are paid to cities over time and not in a lump sum, and because private donations often are staggered, the city would consider leasing-to-own the library from the developer. Ryan Companies would pay for the entire project, and the city could make payments, for up to 20 years, on the library portion of the building and eventually own that portion.

While this seems to be the favored route among project planners, such a plan would need City Council approval.

Public opinion

Opposition to the idea seems to come from three directions — from people who don’t want to see the existing library torn down; those who oppose the mixed-use concept; and those who think the library is fine the way it is.

Ellen Rink, 73, of Marion is one who thinks it’s a mistake to tear down the library.

“I would like to see it expanded, but I wouldn’t want to see this one torn down,” she said. “I think they should, and this is just me, build another building across the street and run a walkway over to the building so cars still can drive under it.”

Clemens said the Library Board plans to address the concerns ahead of the spring special election, once it has more details on what the project would look like and the city’s financial obligation.

Those numbers are expected in January, he said.

Marion’s vote will come about a half year after Cedar Rapids voters in November solidly rejected a proposal to raise taxes by 27 cents per $1,000 of taxable value to pay for library operations.

Public information sessions about the concept are being scheduled across Marion. Those sessions, Clemens said, have been “well-attended, but not attended by enough people.”

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