A rich return on investment

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While the legislature haggles over whether to fork over millions of taxpayer dollars to millionaire owners to pay for sports stadiums, there’s a public works project coming to fruition in Minneapolis that deserves recognition and applause.

May 20 marks the grand opening of the new Minneapolis Central Library. And there are plenty of reasons to celebrate this new building and all that it represents.

It’s not just that the building, designed by famed architect Cesar Pelli, is beautiful inside and out, although it is, from its cathedral-like central commons and wide-open floor plan to the floor-to-ceiling windows that infuse the library with light and its eco-sensitive “green” roof.

And it’s not just that the $138.7 million, five-year project was completed on time and on budget, although it was.

It’s not even the fact that—unlike those millionaire ballclub owners and many of our elected state representatives—the library board and city officials had the decency to go to Minneapolis residents and ask their approval—which they heartily received—before spending $110 million of taxpayer money.

Many of the most important reasons to celebrate the opening of the new Central Library involve what happens inside the building: community.

It takes just a few minutes inside the new library to understand what great care was taken to create a space that invites users to get comfortable, to linger and to make themselves at home.

There’s nothing of the old hush-and-shush ambience here. The floors plans are open and spacious, there are comfortable chairs grouped around fireplaces on every floor, an abundance of computer terminals and wireless internet access throughout.

The Children’s Library is bright and playful, decorated with dragonfly sculptures and hands-on wall art designed to ignite the imagination. The Children’s Library also offers age-appropriate computer games and learn-to-read programs that younger patrons can access from home with their library cards, a boon for low-income families in danger of being left behind by the digital divide.

Teen Central, with its cool, clubhouse ambience, was designed by those who will use it. With features like directional sound speakers, a beverage-welcome policy and a great perch overlooking Hennepin Avenue, Teen Central promises to give teens something rare these days, a safe place to explore themselves.

The new library also has much to offer Minnesota’s newest residents. The New Americans Center has materials in Spanish, Somali and Hmong, bilingual volunteers and computer software programs for English language learners. And in September, an AmeriCorps-Vista volunteer will coordinate conversation circles that promise to connect new immigrants with long-time residents.

There’s another reason to celebrate the new Central Library. This statewide resource represents the best of who we are as a society. It is a gleaming tribute to our commitment to knowledge in all its forms, from the books on the shelves, to the art on the walls, to the abundant public meeting spaces where we can continue our civic conversations.

And while some may still wonder if a more utilitarian building could have sufficed and would have left more funding for branch libraries, the grandeur of the new library offers an important messages to every child who walks through its doors, regardless of race, economic status or country of origin: the world is at your fingertips, just imagine what you can be.

Just imagine how much richer our society would be if every project funded by public dollars offered such a tremendous return on our investment.

J. Trout Lowen is editor of Minnesota Women’s Press.

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