How We Got Here: A Brief History of the Library Building Project

Where We Are Today

For several years now, the Library Board of Trustees has been working from the direction provided by the community during the Imagine 8 visioning process in 2009. Expanding the library was identified as one of the 8 most important goals for making Marion a better place to live. The process started with 1800 ideas. We’re finally getting around to making the library happen.

At a publicly announced special meeting on July 6, The Board directed Ryan Companies to hire a library architect last week. The plan now is to have conceptual designs and drawings ready by the end of August so that we can organize public charettes for input. For the next step in the design process Ryan Companies is planning a visual survey session for the end of July. They’ll invite City Council members, Board members, stakeholders, and citizens in to respond to a presentation to begin to get a broad idea of what people in Marion like and don’t like regarding design.

As of now, the Library Board does not intend to ask for a construction bond issue. This is a matter of not adding to the City’s debt. The Board wants to be fiscally responsible and there may be a way to finance a new library without adding to the City’s debt or increasing property taxes by increasing the debt levy. That’s why the Board is exploring a mixed-use project—to leverage private interest to achieve a public good. There isn’t a book to read about how to do this. We’re writing it.

Getting Started, Early 2013

In 2013 the Board organized a Renovation and Expansion Committee. They called it that because at that time the Board as a group more or less assumed that’s what would happen to the current library. That group consisted of Trustees, representatives from the Library Friends and Foundation, community stakeholders, citizens and a City Council representative, Cody Crawford. Its job was needs assessment. Based on its work in May of 2014 we posted a Facility Needs Assessment to the library’s website and tried to use other means, including press releases and the Marion Messenger to let people know it was there.

The Board concluded that given the size of the library’s expected service population in 2035—a little over 100,000—Marion needed a building larger than was feasible to build. The Board scaled expectations down to 65,000sf and we estimated that might cost as much as $16.5 million, but that was a very rough estimate that we knew had to be reexamined. It was still likely too much.

The Marion Public Library Board can sometimes take some long and deliberate paths to get places, because there are two principles that guide them: fiscal responsibility and effective public service. They are dedicated to providing the best library service Marion can have and doing that in a cost-conscious manner. When they reached the conclusions of the needs assessment they realized they still needed to get the cost down and that there was more than one way to do that.

Balancing Costs and Benefits

The Board realized that they shouldn’t assume that renovation and expansion was the most cost-beneficial way of getting the library space Marion needed. In addition to the land the current library is on, the parking lot across 11th St. is available as well as the vacant lot now serving as a community garden. These properties were purchased by the Library Foundation and donated to the City for use by the library. There is a space to build a new library and expand by replacing. But does it make fiscal sense? That question led to the Cost Benefit Site Analysis, a document we also posted to the library website as soon as it was completed.

The Board put together a new committee to conduct the cost benefit study of our building options, and hired Joe Huberty of architectural firm Engberg Anderson as our consultant. The committee included a City Council representative, Joe Spinks, and new community stakeholders and citizens. Mr. Huberty was the lead designer of the Iowa City Public Library and came highly recommended by ICPL director Susan Craig. About this time we also began to consider the mixed-use concept.

It was apparent that the library is sitting on some of the most valuable property in Marion, property whose value was likely to increase as the Central Corridor Project came to fruition and 6th Ave. became a thoroughfare. The Board also knew that one of the primary reasons that Marion was denied Main St. status the first time it applied was because it does not have commerce around Central Square Park. It stops on the south side. On the other hand, the library draws more people to Uptown Marion every day than any other enterprise. Was there a way to take advantage of this and create a more viable commercial layout for Uptown?

A lot of interesting conclusions came out of the Cost Benefit Study. First off, the Board further scaled back the size of the building. They wanted to be realistic about what could be done and what would be appropriate for Uptown Marion.  They set a building size target and limit of 47,000sf. That’s the average size of library buildings in Iowa cities that Marion compares itself to for planning and management purposes. The list is in the Needs Assessment. Mr. Huberty pegged the cost of a building that size at about $12 million as of 2014 estimate figures and that’s held as our budget limit.

Then we discovered that for a host of architectural and engineering reasons, renovating and expanding the current facility would cost about $1 million more than building a new library and only get us about 43,000sf. (See Renovation Cost Issues, 7/20/2014.) It would be less fiscally responsible and provide less space for library service. It seemed to the Board that building a new facility was worth considering.

The Cost Benefit Study also showed that a mixed-use facility that included market rate housing and upscale retail might significantly add to the benefits. It could lead to major new investment in Uptown Marion, create taxable value which could be used to fund the project over time, and provide an anchor for economic development that might complete the Main St. vision. In addition, it seemed possible that that the developer could be expected to provide the up-front funding for the entire project and through a lease-purchase arrangement the City wouldn’t have to begin paying for the library until after it was built and we moved in.

At this point the Board made no plans for a mixed-use development. The next step was to determine if a developer would be interested. If not, the Board planned to pursue the typical design-bid process and start moving toward selection of an architect and getting public input. The Board asked Mr. Huberty to prepare a Request for Qualifications for developers. It did not have a design that it was soliciting bids for. Instead, the Board was seeking developers who were financially qualified to take on a project of the scope they envisioned and could demonstrate a willingness to make the necessary investment.

Exploring the Mixed-Use Option

The pre-selection meeting was announced, open to the public, and attracted about ten firms. We posted information on the library website to explain what we were doing and why, as well as the complete RFQ. That was in September 2014.  The process of selecting a developer for the project stretched into early 2015 and involved presentations by the both of the firms responding to the request. These presentations were also noticed and open to the public. The Board insisted on three things: that the library is to be built first and the private development follows, that the design of the library drives the design of the overall project, and that the overall project draws on and appropriately fits with the Uptown Marion context.

The Board selected Ryan Companies as a development partner and began to move forward with plans to conduct a library user survey to determine if our original needs assessment were correct, select an architect, develop building plans, work up cost models, and solicit public input on those plans and models. The Board created yet another committee, this time a Building Committee to oversee the building process and make recommendations to the Board.  As in the past, this committee consists of Board members, stakeholders and citizens, and a City Council representative. While some of the same Trustees are necessarily involved, they again reached out to new stakeholders and a new Council representative, Paul Draper. All of this was announced on the library website.

Recently, Ryan Companies issued an RFQ for library architects on behalf of the Board and a selection subcommittee of the Building Committee conducted interviews. The Board directed Ryan Companies to hire Joe Huberty of Engberg Anderson. Our user survey was open until July 19 and those results are being analyzed now. We hope to have a report from Vernon Research by the end of the month. A formal development agreement with Ryan Companies will be ready very soon and the Board plans to start the public input process with a stakeholder visioning session on July 28.

That’s where we are now. The project got its start in 2009. Its current version got started in 2013, and the three planning documents guiding the process now—the Facility Needs Assessment, the Cost Benefit Site Analysis, and the RFQ for Developers—were written and published in 2014. The final financing structure is still being worked out, but the use of public/private partnership to build a mixed-use development promises to lead to a substantial reduction in the currently estimated cost. It also promises to create a substantial private investment in Uptown Marion.

The process that brought the Board to this point has been as public as we can make it. Every decision point has been on publicly posted agendas for Board meetings that are open to the public and every decision the Board has made is reported in minutes that are also posted publicly. Everything we’ve done has been recorded at the Inspire section of the library’s website, where we’ve made every effort to explain what we’re doing and why. The Library Trustees are identified on the website so that people can contact them for comment. We’ve done television and press interviews, and I’ve written columns for the Marion Messenger which is delivered quarterly to every household in the city.

The Marion Public Library Board of Trustees knows that there are many people who have questions about the library project and that those questions are motivated by genuine civic concern. People who value libraries and their services feel very close to their libraries and want to be involved in their futures. In the next month the Board will organize a series of public meetings to explain the project and get design input. Look for that schedule.