Administration, board split over library system expansion
Since the failure of tax increases to build a new Mesa County central library in 2003 and 2004, library officials shifted their attention — and taxpayer dollars — to enhancing the branches.
The Clifton branch was moved to a larger space. The Orchard Mesa branch was moved from the middle school to a new strip mall on U.S. Highway 50, allowing the branch to double the number of books it carries. Last month, the Fruita branch expanded from its 1,380-square-foot location inside the Fruita Civic Center into a new $1.9 million, 7,000-square-foot home inside the new Fruita Community Center.
But there now appears to be a division between the Mesa County Public Library District administration and the board of trustees over whether to create a new branch near Mesa Mall to serve populations in the west and north areas of Grand Junction.
Library Director Eve Tallman has had her eye on a space that’s for sale near the new City Market, 630 24 Road.
“There’s been a lot of research that shows folks will go to a library in a shopping center because it’s convenient,” Tallman said in an interview last week. “Convenience, to me, is king. We have the money to invest right now to serve all those people.”
Palisade also is encouraging the library to relocate that town’s branch into the old Palisade High School, a long abandoned building officials are slowly converting into a civic center.
But most library board trustees who attended a meeting last month expressed reservation about opening another branch anytime soon. They said they’re concerned about making any investments when a decline in property valuations likely will sap the library of more than $1 million out of its primary source of funding next year. Some encouraged the district to turn its focus back to the central library and replacing a 60-year-old building that library supporters say outgrew its adequacy years ago.
“We could find ourselves without the ability to fund a facility downtown” if the district spends money on a branch near the mall and revenue subsequently plummets, Trustee Fred Smith said during a Feb. 3 meeting. “That’s my problem. We could play out the cards immediately and find we couldn’t do something we’ve all talked about and moved toward for a long time.”
The debate resurrects a question that surfaced when voters rejected the tax measures for the new central library years ago. Does the library serve the community better by investing in smaller branches spread around the community or in a larger facility in a centralized location?
The library has a $5.2 million fund balance, most of which officials say they would ideally set aside for capital projects. New branches in Palisade and near the mall could cost around $1 million each.
Tallman said she believes the north and west areas of Grand Junction are underserved by the library. Officials estimate 3,900 central library patrons live in the 81505 zip code, which is north of the Colorado River between 21 and 26 roads, while 3,800 library patrons live in the 81507 zip code on the Redlands. Most of those patrons use the central library.
With the opening of the new City Market, Tallman said residents in those areas may not have a reason to go downtown — and therefore to the central library — anymore.
“When we look at the big picture of what a large public library should be doing, we should be building a large capacity and serving as many people as we possibly can,” she said.
But Smith said he wants to press ahead with what’s known as the Catalyst Project, a proposed redevelopment of several downtown blocks between Fourth and Sixth streets and Grand and Chipeta avenues that would feature a new central library, a new senior recreation center, housing and retail space.
Partners in the project — the library, the city of Grand Junction, Mesa County, the Downtown Development Authority and the Grand Junction Housing Authority — want to bring in a private developer to help provide capital and, ideally, would like to acquire the former First Assembly of God church. The property occupies the entire block between Fourth and Fifth streets and Grand and Ouray avenues and has been for sale for nearly six years.
But the recession has left few with the money necessary to move the project ahead. Talks of redevelopment haven’t progressed beyond that — talking — and that frustrates Smith, who suggested partners should begin putting money into a pot.
“If you don’t start today, you’re going to miss the next good developer who does come along, and they’re here, they’re looking now,” he said. “And if we don’t have a debutante to take to the ball, it isn’t going to happen. And right now, we haven’t got a debutante. All we’ve got is a discussion.”
Smith said spending money on the north area and Palisade branches now would diminish the library’s ability to subsidize a new central library in the future.
“I wouldn’t mind doing the 24 Road (branch) if it’s possible, but if it’s going to compete with the downtown (library), and if it’s going to be a problem, then I think we wouldn’t,” Trustee Sally Matchett said.
Trustee Laurie Cahill, however, questioned whether the board, by zeroing in on a new central library, is ignoring a directive from voters who rejected the tax increases and asked the library to instead invest in branches.
“(Voters) said, ‘No, we’re not interested enough in a downtown library,’” Cahill said.
Library officials indicated several times they don’t plan to ask taxpayers again to increase the district’s 3-mill levy.
Tallman knows a new central library is needed, saying it’s been clear to leadership for a decade. But the Catalyst Project will take several years to come together.
“I would love to see things happen quickly, but when I talk to Realtors and builders, they say, ‘Yeah, that’s going to take a long time,’” she said. “There’s so much that has to happen.”
Library leaders also have to decide how much money to sink into repairs and improvements at the central library. Tallman said the list of needs includes upgrading the building’s heating and cooling system, replacing the roof on the administration building and enhancing lighting in the parking lot.
Officials must weigh the cost of the work against the life span of the central library.