Thursday, February 9, 2012

In a six-hour goal-setting agenda at the Carrollton Centre in late August, the Carroll City Council and members of city staff delved into a number of policy and process issues, reviewing ongoing initiatives and hatching new ones.

The future of the Carroll Public Library and sewer improvements and maintenance received the most votes from council members when they were asked to assess value to city matters by Jeff Schott, program director for the University of Iowa’s Institute of Public Affairs, the facilitator of the retreat.

More recently, council members indicated they’d like to see $20,000 allocated in the budget for next fiscal year to study potential plans for a new library or a renovation and expansion of the existing one.

Carroll voters rejected a plan for a library in the central business district in early August. Council members just weeks later said the task of providing more modern library services remained a primary goal.

Mayor Adam Schweers said during his campaign for mayor that he wants to see an examination of new sites, alternates to the Heider location that was turned back soundly by voters.

“I would like to see a full examination of an alternative site,” Schweers said.

He’s concerned that an addition-and-remodeling plan at the current library would create space problems for downtown businesses and activities.

“I feel that we as a downtown already fight a very big uphill battle with parking,” Schweers said.

All of this leads to the potential resurrection of the original idea to emerge with regard to a new Carroll library: a joint project with Des Moines Area Community College, one that would allow for economies of scale with staffing and utilities and space and materials and technology.

It would seem to be the idea that could bring the most stakeholders together, and it indisputably could involve more funding sources than a re-do at the Farner Government Building or a politically nettlesome proposal at another location around Carroll — which could bring the north- and south-of-tracks arguments into the picture in an ugly way again.

Most important, a DMACC-Carroll Library (or Carroll-DMACC Library) would pull four major entities to the table: DMACC itself, the City of Carroll, Carroll County and the Carroll Library Foundation (the latter raises money privately and through not-for-profits.) The Foundation just received word of a $25,000 grant through Union Pacific Railroad for a new library — although it is not clear if that money is locked in to the earlier plan.

Looking forward, if a $6 million library facility were planned as part of the DMACC campus, it would fair to start with a funding split of $1.5 million each from the four entities — DMACC, the city, the county and the Foundation.

According to library statistics, 70 percent of materials are checked out by people from the City of Carroll, 28 percent from residents of the county outside of Carroll and 2 percent from beyond the borders of Carroll County. That considered, there is a role for the county in the library project. While it may not seem so at the often decidedly rural-centered supervisors meetings, the City of Carroll is in Carroll County.

A DMACC-Carroll (and by Carroll, we mean city and county here) would help the regional economic engine that is the City of Carroll summon a more throaty roar.

And it’s fair.

Breda, Arcadia, Dedham, Halbur, Templeton, Willey and Lidderdale all contract with the City of Carroll for library services they don’t provide in their own city limits. Those communities will directly benefit from a new DMACC-Carroll County Public Library.

In terms of private contributions the Foundation raised more than $1 million for a library plan that ended up being as controversial as it was visionary. A Carroll-DMACC Library plan — if blessed with broad support — could attract even more private dollars as the pool of potential donors would be widened by bringing in the full county and community college supporters. Businesses that were reluctant to see their brands associated with the Heider plan, the subject of robust debate in our editorial pages, clearly would be more willing to add their good names and donations to a DMACC-Carroll County Public Library.

In short, a four-way spending split disperses the burden, making the plan more politically palatable.

Developing a project jointly with DMACC also does much to dispel concerns that American libraries will be Kindled and iPad-ed into obsolescence.

I don’t think libraries will be tossed out with Walkmen and boom boxes and cassette tapes.

Neither do the residents of Seattle, one of the more tech-savvy cities in the modern world. In 2004, the Seattle Central Library opened — a facility its advocates describe as an “11-floor, 362,987-square-foot library, a dazzling avant-garde symphony of glass and form.”

If Seattle, with its hyper-wired denizens, doesn’t think technology is rendering libraries irrelevant, who in the name of 4G are we to disagree?

The numbers back up the argument as well. In 2010, there were 111,472 books and DVDs and other items checked out from the Carroll Public Library. That figure jumped to 114,655 in 2011.

But let’s say I’m all wet on the support for a new library (as is the council which has made it a top priority) — and the voters of Seattle who overwhelmingly passed the largest library bond issue ever submitted in the United States were wrong, that libraries, contrary to trends, will draw fewer patrons.

In that case, if the new Carroll library is campused with existing DMACC facilities, it can adapt to a blend of college and county and city needs.

Finally, for a new library plan to scrub skeptics, advocates need to be up-front about how to backfill the current Carroll Public Library. What makes the most sense is a strategy to rent the space to county or federal or state government or non-profit entities, to assure City of Carroll voters that the old library’s 10,400 square feet of space won’t be used for offices to create new city departments and taxpayer expenses.

Your Carroll City Council has identified the library as its priority. But it shouldn’t go down this road alone.

Bring in DMACC, reach out to the county. Spread the pain and gain.

And get it done.

Let’s not deprive another generation of our kids the use of a modern learning facility to compliment the hard work of teachers and parents around Carroll County.

(Daily Times Herald columnist Douglas Burns is vice president of the Carroll Library Foundation.)