No new Webber Library in North Minneapolis … yet

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On May 22, at the Hennepin County Commissioners meeting, Mark Stenglein moved Resolution No. 12-0263. Commissioner Mike Opat seconded the resolution and it passed unanimously. Moving, discussing and voting on the resolution took three minutes and nine seconds. The resolution removed the new Webber Park Library from the Capital Budget, it established a $500,000 Webber Park Library Improvements Capital Project which would be funded by Minneapolis Library bonds, and directed the Library and Property Services staff to design improvements to the existing Webber Park Library.

It is difficult to write about this newest development in the life of our 102-year-old library. The last decade has been tumultuous. At the beginning of this century Webber Park Library patrons enjoyed full service hours at Webber Park Library. Unfortunately, as the State of Minnesota cut Local Government Aid to Minneapolis, our libraries suffered financially and Webber Park Library was limited to four days of service. By 2006 the Minneapolis Public Library system was in jeopardy. In an effort to keep libraries across Minneapolis open, the Minneapolis and Hennepin Library systems were consolidated, and three libraries were shuttered for the 2007 year of negotiations. Webber Park Library was one of them. If January 2007 was the nadir moment for Webber Park Library, January 2008 seemed to be its zenith. In December 2007, Hennepin County Commissioners approved the consolidation, voted to reopen the shuttered libraries and also approved a $15 million capital budget for a new Webber Park Library. Commissioners Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein unveiled the preliminary plans at the grand reopening in January 2008 and I believe they thought it would happen. It was easy to be optimistic.

Speculation about the demise of this project is difficult and likely not helpful. Resolution No. 12-0263 points to the inability to acquire one parcel of land, but it could also be argued that the “T’s should have been crossed and the I’s dotted” before large sums of money were spent on property acquisition and architectural designs.

At the May 22 meeting, County Commissioner Jeff Johnson asked what happens to the money allocated for the project and also about the three properties that had been purchased for the new library using bond proceeds earmarked for library projects. County Administrator Richard Johnson said, “The budget for unspent dollars would be removed and could be reallocated,” and regarding the property, “It is County property. We’d have to consider whether to put it on the market or consider whether it has any further use for the county, otherwise we declare it surplus.”

If the County sells the land, federal tax regulations would require that properties purchased with bond proceeds would be put back into capital projects. Additionally, it should be noted that when the merger took place a budget of $2,095,000 was identified to remodel the Webber Park Library with funding provided from the City of Minneapolis bond proceeds per the 2000 Minneapolis Library referendum. If one dares to be optimistic, you could imagine that a future library project might include a new Webber Park Library.

With the retirement of Mark Stenglein, voters will have the opportunity to ask the candidates their views on the future of Webber Park Library.

It is also important to note that Hennepin County has made improvements to many of the public libraries. Roosevelt, one of the three shuttered libraries, is currently undergoing a $3.2 million renovation. Nokomis Library reopened in April of 2011, after a $6.9 million renovation. Southeast Library, the third shuttered library, is in line for a $12 million renovation or rebuild, and many of the libraries have received ergonomic and other improvements. Additionally, 14 libraries have received expanded hours made possible by revenues from the Twins’ stadium tax.

In the midst of waiting for improvements and equity for Webber Park Library it is a challenge to stay sanguine. For my part I try to focus on those who are working to improve our library, regardless of setbacks. A person who comes to mind is Mary Martinson, president and one of the founders of the Friends of Webber Park Library. She works tirelessly to improve the opportunities for programs at Webber Park Library — right now, right where it is — even while she too waits for better days ahead.

I remember Edna C. Downing, a North Minneapolis teacher who trumpeted literacy and left a $10,000 bequest to Webber Park Library in her estate to continue her work in that regard. I think of Charles and Mary Webber, who had the foresight to leave a legacy that has lasted for 102 years.