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Our view: Engage public in expansion effort

Published: Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The $8.5 million state library construction grant awarded to the DeKalb Public Library represents a great opportunity for the community, one that should not be allowed to slip away.

However, the library board should not see it as carte blanche in this time of tight budgets.

The Library Board has a plan for a 48,000-square-foot expansion, an addition more than 2½ times larger than the existing Haish Memorial Library. The existing building has not been expanded in 40 years. If you’d like to see for yourself how cramped the space is, tours are available Friday evenings.

Library Director Dee Coover has said that community donations will be a major part of the fundraising needed to provide a matching contribution for the grant.

The library is rooted in community giving: It opened in 1931 thanks to a $150,000 gift from the estate of barbed-wire baron Jacob Haish.

The library is a community asset, and it’s fitting that the community be asked to contribute to the effort. No doubt many people would be willing to help with the fundraising effort by contributing their money, their time, or both.

Community input must also be part of the process. Library officials must be open with the public on specifics and how they are willing to modify their plans if necessary.

The public has yet to hear a figure for how much the library must raise in order to receive the state grant, or what money is available in its reserve fund, which was established in November 2010.

DeKalb’s city government, of which the library is technically a part, could be asked to borrow money for the library expansion as well. The city is a home-rule community and therefore does not need a referendum to borrow money.

But taxpayers no doubt will want a say in how much is borrowed – they will be the ones asked to repay the loan.

Barring a wildly successful fundraising campaign, the board should consider other means of making the project cost-effective. Could there be savings found in building the addition in phases, perhaps by leaving off the proposed third level or leaving the basement area unfinished, for example?

Library officials already have scaled back their plans since 2010, when they proposed a new, 89,000-square-foot building on the site of the DeKalb Clinic.

That plan was plagued by questions about public openness with the public and eventually undone by concerns about the building.

This time, the library has an opportunity to do it better. The need for expansion is clear, and an open effort to engage and involve the public is needed to make some kind of expansion come to fruition.

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