A family has a dream. Two men have a vision. Sometimes what is true, doesn’t easily lend itself to what is right. The Camden Community continues to sit on the brink of having something very good come our way. Patience may be our best tool.
Despite the fact that Minneapolis could no longer afford to provide library services at many community libraries, a solution was found by way of collegial cooperation in the consolidation of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County Library systems. The Minneapolis Public Library Board, the City of Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Library Board and Hennepin County, along with strong grassroots community support, resolved to do better. The State of Minnesota provided the legislation necessary to enable the consolidation. The libraries systems were merged in the beginning of 2008, and our library was reopened. It goes to show what can happen when the best of what people have to offer, resolves to do what is best for the common good.
The reopening of the Webber Park Library was a gala event. At the time of the reopening, the library had been closed for one year! Its reopening was its own victory, but Hennepin County Commissioners Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein honored what had been in the works years prior: the discussions and groundwork for an enhanced Webber Park Library. Many ideas had been tossed around, but they came to a halt when state LGA cuts meant that the entire Minneapolis Library system was in jeopardy. That groundwork, along with $2,095,000 from the City of Minneapolis 2000 Library referendum, and the opportunity provided by the consolidation, was enough to get the project going again. The 2008 Hennepin County budget was amended to include additional funds, up to $15,000,000 for the new library.
The $15 million new Webber Library budget prevailed in the County’s 2009 capital budget. $2,255,000 was designated for land acquisition, $5,856,000 for construction, $1,038,000, for consulting, $1,001,000 for furnishing and equipment, and $4,849,000 for other/contingency. However, the County’s 2010 capital budget cut $3,000,000 from the new Webber Library, an indication that time and delays are not the friend of this project. The majority of the cuts were to construction (less $863,000) and other/contingency (less $2,912,000). In regards to the cuts, Stenglein commented, “The county has made cuts to all capital projects.” In addition Stenglein noted, “The county’s commitment to the Northside is unparalleled. We have invested $30M on Lowry Ave, $6M on Victory Memorial, $100M on a new Lowry Ave Bridge, and we will build a new Webber Library. The former Minneapolis Library Board clearly shirked their duty with regard to the Webber Library. We are doing our best to correct that situation and move forward to provide a state-of-the-art facility.” The resulting land acquisitions at the old Kowalski’s site and on 45th Avenue, and the architectural designs for the new Webber Library, are evidence that time and effort have been put into this project.
In times of economic recession, it is difficult to question cuts to capital improvements, especially in light of the demands on the county in other areas, perhaps most notably the budgetary demands of Hennepin County Medical Center. Stenglein indicated that “the HCMC operating budget every six days, equals the total capital budget of this [Webber Library] single project.” The overall spending for capital improvements to Hennepin County library projects was reduced by 60% for the 2010 year. However, most of the projects had their budgets extended overtime, with the money reinfused in 2011 and beyond. Only one other library, Walker Library, had its capital budget decreased by 20%. All other project budgets remained the same or increased. Most notable would be Southeast Library remodeling with a 275% increase and the new Excelsior Library, a 94% increase. The Northeast Library project should be complete this year and the project budget was increased 38% in the 2010 budget, from a total of $3,785,000 to $5,235,000. Despite the cuts to the Webber Library budget and the increases in other projects, only three others are receiving more capital dollars than Webber: New Maple Grove Library – $29,232,000, the new Plymouth Library – 17,640,000, and the new Brooklyn park Library $26,543,000.
Other than the recession, the main obstacle to building a new library continues to be about location. Commissioners Opat and Stenglein hold firm to the vision they have for its placement on the drive and if not there, they will seek out another location. Stenglein said they have closed in on another site, but it is not yet secured and therefore not public. Opat stated, “Once we secure the final property, the work will begin in earnest. But until that time, we will hold the project and seek to put the balance of the property into productive use.” At this time there is not a lease on the Kowalski property, but Stenglein said, “several viable proposals have been submitted.”
Dreams are more private matters than the politics of land acquisition and library building, but the politics of the new Webber Library have drawn in Kevin and Valerie Holler, in a way that is unavoidable. Hennepin County wants to purchase their property for the new library, but the Hollers are not interested in selling their property on the parkway. Valerie Holler noted, “The irony is that the site coveted by these public officials is across from the Victory Memorial Parkway, a memorial built to honor those who died believing they were preserving freedoms of people in the United States.” Their dream is “to move into the home on the parkway, with a view that is like living in the woods.” She said it is the perfect place to raise a child, work, garden, raise chickens and grow old. The location is close to parks, green space, biking and walking paths, and the Hollers are “fond of the neighbors.” It is not an unreasonable dream, but one that is embroiled in public controversy at this time. Valerie Holler said that the comment in a recent StarTribune article, which stated that “The house was for sale until we started looking at it,” was not true. She said their house was taken off of the market in the spring of 2007 and the library consolidation wasn’t complete until 2008. Kevin Holler is a licensed glass block worker, but is unable to get a “nonconforming use” allowance for the property. Valerie Holler said that at one time the County said they could build around them.
When asked about getting more hours at the current Webber Park Library, Stenglein said that “everyone is vying for library hours, but I will commit to trying.” Opat replied, “Please remember that the current library was closed when we took over the failing system. It is now open – maybe not enough at present, but when a new building is built, the hours will increase.” He continued, “We [Opat and Stenglein] are and will stay committed to a new Webber Library. I have lived my entire life in the area and know well that the area deserves a first class facility.”
100 years ago Mary Harris Webber and Charles Deere Webber had a dream. I can only painfully imagine what the dream for their family might have been. But their dream was cut short by the death of their son John, age 10, of meningitis. In their grief, their dream became a vision; a vision that has served our community well for 100 years in the resources provided in the pool, library and land that is now Webber Park. Some might scoff at my conclusions. After all I have never spoken with Mary and Charles Webber. But I have read the history of their contribution. As I read the history, I try to find the truth of what is hidden in the white spaces of the written text. Read it. Maybe, if we find the truth, we will know the right thing to do.