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Bloomington Library Pitches Revised Expansion Plan To Council

Library 2 SE Side on Prairie - rendering.jpg
City of Bloomington
A rendering of the proposed renovated and expanded Bloomington Public Library from the southeast side on Prairie Street.

The Bloomington Public Library has presented two options for expansion to the city council. One costs $20.7 million, the other $2 million more. The difference is a two-level parking structure.

Library director Jeanne Hamilton said the expansion and renovation includes wider aisles, more accessible shelving, sensory-friendly rooms, a drive-up window on the first floor, a nursing nook, new meeting rooms, a computer lab, a maker's lab, and recording studios for podcasts.

"With these plans, we are trying to serve as the great equalizer for our community, serving people of all demographics. And this will allow us to provide even more equity to our community," Hamilton told council members on Tuesday. "We are exceeding many of our peers on usage, but our square footage is on the low end, particularly in meeting space."

She said an expansion also would build BPL's customer base.

"Any time a library has an expansion, they see an increased use. I think I read a study that said at least 18% increased checkouts. You are creating an opportunity for more people to find what they need at the library," said Hamilton.

The library has about 32,000 card holders. That is down from 35,000, Hamilton said, because many have not renewed during the pandemic. She expects that number to rise as COVID eases.

That also is not a complete picture of those who may not have cards, but who still use the library.

The lower cost proposal would require city bonding of $15 million, costing the owner of an average $160,000 home about $29 more per year in property taxes.

"Our rate remains lower than our peer libraries," said Hamilton.

The 20-year bond issue would carry a 1.83% interest rate. The city estimates it would add $1 million to the tax levy, or $1.1 million if the council chooses to add the parking structure.

The proposal is scaled down from a previous effort rejected by the council.

"A key goal is to do the maximum we can in the most fiscally responsible manner. And we think we are giving those options to you," said Julian Westerhout, library board chair.

The estimate is based on last year's tax rate and tax base. City Manager Tim Gleason also noted the assumption is that property values will increase and there will be economic growth in the community, which would spread the amount needed to pay the debt to more people and reduce the average amount of the increase.

Library NW Corner.jpg
City of Bloomington
A rendering of the northwest corner of a proposed renovated Bloomington Library.

In her presentation to the council, Hamilton addressed an often-asked question of why the city would not just convert space at Eastland Mall.

"Even with renovating a library that was built for a library, there are costs involved. ... Books are very heavy. There are a lot of buildings that were not created to withstand the weight of books. I know there are some libraries that were built in places not made for that and they have to be careful where they put their book stocks, or the fourth floor will sink in. It is cost effective to stay where we are at and add on. It would not be as simple as purchasing a building and moving in," said Hamilton.

She also said data and cabling needs would be difficult to retrofit into a structure not previously used for a library.

In reacting to the presentation, city council members referenced previous failed proposals.

"This is a far more practical and reasonable proposal than we have had in the past," said council member Jamie Mathy.

"It’s a good thing this was scaled back because as I recall, this was built all the way to East Street and that might have been underwater with the flooding," said Donna Boelen.

"I came out much more positive on the ideas than I was when I came in," added Nick Becker.

If the council approves the project, the bond issue could be as early as November with construction done in 2023, said Hamilton.

"Libraries are the last free place you can go without the expectation you are going to make a purchase…the last free place you can go and just learn or enjoy without a lot of societal burdens on yourself," said Mathy.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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