MARION — More than a dozen people, mostly retirees and mothers with young children, wait in the Marion Public Library’s lobby one recent weekday for its 9:30 a.m. opening.
“It’s really great,” said Amy Polfer with daughter Cora, 3, and two children from her at-home day care. “Not only do they have books to read and check out, but there’s the puzzles and the kitchen play area, and the blocks. They have so many extra things for the kids to do.”
Polfer said she doesn’t pay close attention, “but especially during peak hours it does seem a little crowded.”
“I would like it if they could expand the sections I read from,” agreed Elizabeth Schnipke, returning some books and DVDs.
Four years after starting the process, the city and potential private partners say they are close to finally unveiling a plan for a new and larger library.
“We’ve got a great idea,” said Library Director Elsworth Carman. “We’re just waiting for all the pieces to come together.”
A new library still would be the centerpiece of a mixed-use development in the Uptown neighborhood, a block north of the current location. But some details have changed since an initial plan was announced in February 2017.
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That plan called for a new library as part of a $24 million residential and retail complex on the site now occupied by Marion Square Plaza at 1101-1129 Seventh Ave. Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies, with a regional office in Cedar Rapids, would have built the structure, selling the library to the Marion Public Library Foundation, which would have leased it to the city.
The plan called for the foundation to tap about $10 million in state bonds to finance the library’s purchase, with the city using $5.04 million in local-option sales tax revenue to fund its lease. The city would have owned the building outright after about 10 years.
The proposed development grew with the addition of a second floor of commercial space — the library would occupy the ground floor fronting Seventh Avenue — and a parking ramp south of the main complex.
Those changes, a new state law and the planned involvement of Marion-based Genesis Equities set planning back by about a year.
Carman hopes the updated plan will go before the City Council this month or next.
“We’ve worked through a great number of financial models,” he said. “There appears to be a number of viable ways forward.”
The city’s police headquarters, opened in November 2013, was funded through a similar lease directly through the contractor that constructed it. But City Manager Lon Pluckhahn noted the state law governing such agreements has changed, amid lawmakers’ concerns over competitive bidding. The change potentially rules out the library foundation as the lessor.
“We’re taking a look at that,” Pluckhahn said. “There’s another party in between (the city and contractor). Does the project have to change, and if so, how does it have to change?”
Last September, Genesis bought Marion Square Plaza for $2.5 million from N & K Investment Company, its owner since 1988. The Linn County Assessor estimates the property is worth $1.7 million.
Ryan Companies “approached us about becoming a housing partner for the project because they don’t typically handle housing,” said Hannah Kustes, Genesis’ co-owner. “They were looking for someone who would own and operate the commercial end of the project as well. It made sense that we move forward with the purchase.”
“We do not typically stay in a project,” said Lydia Brown, Ryan’s director of real estate development. “We typically develop it and sell it. Understanding it was going to be connected to the library and the city preferring a local partner, they were a logical choice and they’ve been a great partner.”
The extended planning process hasn’t been kind to the mall, which now has about as many vacant storefronts as occupied ones.
“We’re uncertain,” said Steve Ackerman. His family owns and operates Vintage Needlework, a plaza tenant for eight years. He said Genesis is urging him to leave the space by year’s end.
“But that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Some of us have contracts that extend past that, and they don’t seem willing to buy us out.”
“We’re honoring their current leases as they are, with the understanding that if we do arrive at an agreement to move this project forward we’ll negotiate with the tenants,” Kustes said.
Ackerman said customers are aware of the situation.
“They mention it mainly about when we’re going to close,” he said. “We can’t tell them anything.”
Ryan would also build, and Genesis would manage, the project’s new component, a parking ramp with commercial space on what’s now library parking across 11th Street from the current library.
Pluckhahn said recent estimates put the library’s cost at just under $14 million.
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Carman expects the project will tap the $5 million in sales taxes already committed by the council. Sale of the current library site should raise $2.5 million.
Library backers agree the city has outgrown its 24,000-square-foot building opened in 1996. A 2014 needs assessment estimated that’s at least 20,000 square feet short of current needs.
“We exceeded the 20-year population projection by 2000,” said Susan Kling, president of the library’s board of trustees and library director from 1987 to 2011.
Circulation grew 59 percent, to nearly 700,000 items, from 2009 to last year. The library’s “door count” was up 68 percent, to 319,437 people, over the same period, and attendance for children’s programs jumped 361 percent, to more than 11,000.
Opened on the cusp of the internet era, the library boasted six online computers. “That was considered cutting edge,” Carman said.
Demand has outgrown the original “computer room,” and the library now has 26 computers arranged along one wall.
“It’s done a great job, but the facility is not destination-worthy,” said Carman.
Kling said the library’s trustees are more than ready for the project to proceed.
“I don’t know if ‘frustrated’ is the right word,” she said. “We’re very anxious to see it move ahead.”