Clarifying the Marion library debate as an election looms

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For the record, Marion Ward 2 City Council candidate Pete Johnson does not favor incorporating a new Marion Public Library into a mixed-use development project Uptown.

When our editorial board met with Marion candidates, including Johnson, we got the impression each candidate favored the broad concept of a multiuse development, including a library. All were eager to see a more detailed plan for the project. So in our endorsement editorial Sunday, we wrote Johnson supported the mixed-use idea.

Upon further review, that was incorrect. Elsewhere in the Sunday paper, in a graphic comparing candidates’ positions on issues, Johnson said he opposed the public-private project. A reader pointed out the discrepancy, so I called Johnson to clarify.

“I believe that the library needs to be expanded,” Johnson told me Tuesday morning. “I do not believe it needs to be part of this multiuse building. But it is also correct in saying there is no formal proposal before the city council.

“So it’s hard to judge any proposal until we know what it is. And I think that’s probably where I miscommunicated,” Johnson said. He thinks the city should expand its existing 1996 library on its existing site.

Johnson’s opponent in Ward 2, Steve Jensen, who received our endorsement, supports building a larger library and is “100 percent” in favor of the mixed use development. But he, too, is waiting for details.

“Until there is an actual recommendation in front of the city council, it’s hard to say what should be done,” Jensen said.

It’s not all that surprising the library issue tripped us up, considering how tough it’s been at times for people not knee-deep in the process to follow the saga. Plans have changed and changed again. Once, a public vote was promised, but later scrapped. Now, with a city election looming, there’s no concrete plan for candidates to solidly support or oppose.

What we know is library leaders and the city are pursuing a new library as part of a mixed-use retail/residential development that would be built on the site of the Marion Square strip mall. A local firm, Genesis Equity, now owns the mall and is in partnership with Ryan Companies, the private developer building the project.

As for funding, the library’s nonprofit foundation board would issue bonds to buy the library portion of the project from Ryan. In turn, the city will lease the library from the foundation using local-option sales tax dollars earmarked for the library. After a decade, the city would own the library. Other bucks would come from selling the current library and a fundraising campaign.

So there’s no tax increase or additional city debt. Marion gets a new library and a new development that will generate property taxes. But as of now, we don’t know what it would look like, among other details.

The City Council will be asked to sign off on an agreement between the city and foundation, eventually. So the council will have a say.

I think the concept is strong, but the process has been weak. Voters are left to sort it out. On Monday, there’s a project update meeting at 11 a.m. at the library, for those seeking more clarity.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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