NORTH PEORIA'S TOP 10 - THE LIBRARY

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

The second most important story for 2008, in our view, was the battle for s new North Peoria library branch. 

In March, Mike McKenzie, president of the Peoria Public Library Board, worked a crowd before a meeting at Expo Gardens to discuss a long-awaited North Peoria library branch.

McKenzie shook hands.

He answered questions.

And, he offered advice.

“Please ask (5th District councilman Pat Nichting) to vote the way his district voted,” McKenzie said to a North Peoria couple.

McKenzie and library director Ed Szynaka knew despite a 70-plus percent favorable vote on issuing $35 million in bonds to build a new branch and upgrade other branches in an April ‘07 advisory referendum, they still had to get the council to approve it.

McKenzie even suggested to the crowd of almost 300 people that the new branch might not become a reality without public pressure on the Peoria City Council in his opening remarks.

Citing the referendum vote, he said, “That gave the council the ability to tax, not the requirement.”

Even Szynaka made a reference to the council.

“We are trying very hard to be responsible ... It’s a hard call for the city council,” he said.

But, before any branch can become a reality, a site must be selected.

The big question facing the board now is whether re-habing an existing building or building a new building is best.

The Farnsworth Group, in charge of finding the best location, has identified the former K’s Merchandise building, ShopKo, the former Festival Foods store and even the Menards store on Pioneer Parkway as possibilities.

“There are even a few more we are researching,” Dan Gavin, of the Farnsworth Group, said.

In addition, Gavin said, the company is looking at sites for a new building along the west side of Allen Road.

“Nothing is set in stone yet, nothing is out of bounds,” Bruce Brown, also of the Farnsworth Group, added.

Brown said the library will need between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet of space on three to four acres of land so parking can be included.

“A (new) site is exciting, but adaptive re-use can be exciting, too,” Gavin said.

Don’t ask

Ed Szynaka looked tired as sipped coffee the morning of May 6 in the Twin Towers. Still he was ready for the inevitable question, and cut off the asking of it.

“Don’t ask me where the new North Peoria branch will be,” he said. “I don’t know yet.”

Szynaka did, however, offer a tidbit of new information.

He said the selection process has been trimmed from six sites to two. One is an existing building and one is a greenfield site.

Within the following week Szynaka said he expected an announcement about the site selected. He expected it to come at the May 20 library board meeting, exactly days before the city council was to hear the library board’s proposal.

The process has been slow.

On Oct. 9, 2006, the library board received a proposed strategic plan from consultants they hired which proposed extensive improvements to the main branch, Lakeview Branch and a new North Peoria branch. The North Peoria branch was finally proposed to be 35,000 square feet with a price tag of $11.1 million. 

On April 17, 2007, Peoria voters by more than a 70 percent margin voted in an advisory referendum to approve $35 million for a new North Peoria branch and other improvements to the library system-wide.

At that time, Szynaka said, the library board was working on purchase prices for the two sites.

“We’re in negotiations,” he said.  

Szynaka was devoting 100 percent of his time working on the new library plans, especially a new North Peoria branch. A day, he said, did not go by without someone asking when the location of the new North Peoria branch would be announced.

“People coming into the library are asking, ‘Where are things? It’s been a year,’” Szynaka said.

“It’s a laborious process, more so than anyone imagined. We have a firm looking at sites foot by foot and costing it out. We have to be able to tell the city council what Peorians will get for their money.”

Szynaka said it is not such an easy choice.

“I’ve learned it’s not correct to assume an existing building is the cheapest route,” Szynaka said.

He said some of the buildings they looked at are 20 years old, and in need of a new roof, new heating and air-conditioning systems and improved restrooms.

Szynaka said he had been spending a lot of time talking to neighborhood association presidents to keep them informed of the progress.

“There’s a level of frustration out there that nothing’s being done,” Szynaka said.

“When they hear what’s happening they understand.”

Pluses and minuses

At-large coincilman and council libraty-council liasion Gary Sandberg listened as consultants Rick McCarthy of BCA and Bruce Brown of the Farnsworth Group whittled down the list of 10 finalist sites down to two May 20.

“Festival finished second. SUDS finished first,” Brown said.

He said the Festival Foods site has parking lot issues and changing the facade so it does not look like a grocery store.

The SUDS site, he said, has issues with drainage and only a limited amount of utilities being in place.

Sandberg said he was a fan or rehabbing existing sites.

But, he said, that preference came with a caveat.

“There’s tremendous value in existing buildings,” Sandberg said.

“But, the value in an existing building is directly proportional to the cost of the building ... To make an existing building work, they have to be at the right price.”

Sandberg said given the cost of the Festival Foods building at $4 million and the green field site at SUDS at $3.2 million, it made sense to look at the green field site.

“They’re really equal with different strengths and weaknesses,” Sandberg said.

“This is not about one being worse than the other. They are different.”

He said at the SUD’s site. everything would be new.

However, he added, there is no telling yet what kind of soil conditions might exist there and how those conditions might impact the footings.

At the Festival Foods site, he said, they have 25-year-old heating and air-conditioning to deal with.

He said while they may not have any worries about footings, there is no telling what might emerge if walls are knocked out.

“I can definitely see the objective reasoning why both of these sites rose to the top. I agree with the choices,” Sandberg said.

“It’s a series of choices about pluses and minuses.”

Sandberg added he saw no problem with the bonding request coming to the council before a site is selected.

“Negotiations take time,” he said.

And, time, he added, is of the essence, given the current economic situation.

Sandberg said bond rates were so low it was advantageous to the library and taxpayers to lock in the bonds.

He said a year ago when the project was proposed, the cost to pay off the bonds was 16 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

As of May 21, it was 13 cents.

“If everyone on the council’s really concerned about the taxpayer’s cost of borrowing this money the rates are better now than last year,” Sandberg said.

“If we wait to get a final deal for one of these two properties, interest rates may go up and totally negate the savings made from the negotiations.”

Sandberg said he has thoroughly inspected the budget documents for the project.

“The budget has contingencies money built in. I’m comfortable with those numbers,” he said.

Not ready

Item 8 of the May 23 Peoria City Council agenda was full of uncertainty.

It was the item calling for the issuance of $35 million in bonds to pay for improvements to the Peoria Public Library system and build a new North Peoria branch. The uncertainty arose from the lack of a single location for the new branch.

The library board was still in negotiations with the owners of the former Festival Foods store and SUDS Plaza.

Sandberg, said the uncertainty was totally appropriate.

“With the Festival Foods site, we are negotiating with a seasoned developer in David Joseph. With the other site, we are negotiating with a car dealer who bought extra land,” Sandberg said.

“We’re dealing with two different sites with two different kinds of land owners.”

The vote on the Peoria Public Library’s request for $35 million in bonds was deferred, but the fight to get the bonds needed to re-create the library system was not.

Sandberg resigned as council-library liasion in protest of the deferral.

Yet, he swtayed in the fight as did McKenzie.

Both men said the day after the vote was deferred they hope public pressure on the council really builds.

“I think I’ve got over-whelming public support,” McKenzie said.

“I think we have six people on the council who don’t realize that. They think I’m lying about that. I hope they find out.”

McKenzie said the six are 5th District councilman Pat Nichting, Mayor Jim Ardis, 4th District councilman Bill Spears, 3rd District councilman Bob Manning and at-large councilmen George Jacob and Ryan Spain.

Sandberg said he agreed with McKenzie’s list.

McKenzie said he was not surprised that the council deferred the vote, but he was surprised by how the council went about it.

“As a board, we had talked about the fact the vote might be deferred,” McKenzie said.

“But, the way it happened at the last minute as surprising. I found out about it  at 4:30 p.m. the day of the vote, from the mayor.”

McKenzie said he is aware Spain has questions about the proposed new North Peoria branch, but did not know what the specific questions were. McKenzie said he was aware Manning had finance questions. 

He said Nichting had questions about how the North Peoria sites were ranked by the library’s consultants.

And, he said, Spears wanted more discussion about the Expo Gardens site.  

Spears was by then the council’s liaison to the Peoria Public Library Board after Sandberg resigned from the post May 23. 

“Moving quickly to appoint a liaison after councilman Sandberg’s resignation stresses the importance the council places on having a liaison in place as the conduit to work with the board, and achieve a consensus that will enhance the library system,” Ardis said after appointing Spears.

Sandberg said the questions raised by council members might have been addressed if the councilmen had responded to an offer he made a week before the issue went to the council to meet and address any questions or concerns.

Sandberg said onl Manning and 2nd District councilman Barbara Van Auken took him up on the offer.

But, Sandberg said he knew why the council members did not contact him.

“They want different answers. The answers we have to offer don’t fit what the council wants,” Sandberg said.

“I’ll be surprised if a question arises that an answer wasn’t available for to them two weeks ago ... They each have different reasons for holding it up. Defer and deal is the council’s tenor. I’m not of that philosophy.”

Defer and deal is what McKenzie expects as well in the days leading up to the scheduled June 24 vote.

“I think there’s probably going to be a push by the council to cut things,” McKenzie said.

“I don’t know what they expect us to cut. We already cut the project from $40 million to $35 million.”

McKenzie and Sandberg agreed the deferral was not going to help negotiations with the property owners of the former Festival Foods site in Northpoint Shopping Center and SUD’s Plaza, the favored sites for the new North Peoria branch.

“If you have the money, the property owners are more anxious to get their hands on that money,” McKenzie said.

“This lessens our negotiating ability.”

Sandberg agreed.

“It’s a slight nudge toward hurting,” Sandberg said.

“Why should the property owners negotiate in earnest? Usually cash brings people to the table. I don’t see any reason anyone would feel the council is earnest.”

McKenzie said there were no contingency plans in case the council turned down the request. McKenzie said since failure seemed a possibility, the library board might have to address the possibility of seeking a binding referendum on a future ballot.  

Sandberg said, however, the most important public input on this issue would come at the next council election.

“I think there will e an important referendum vote next year at the polls when council elections arrive,” he said.

A new wrinkle

In June the issue became whether a new North Peoria Library branch, on or near the grounds of Richwoods High School, is a good idea rested with the District 150 school board.

And, with the decision of the school board rested the fate of the Lakeview Library Branch.

But, there were no indications how the school board might greet this proposal.

Most members of the District 150 board and administration, at a June 3 meeting, were tight-lipped after meeting with members of the Peoria City Council and Peoria Public Library Board.

District 150 superintendent Ken Hinton said simply he would be taking the discussion to the full school board “very, very soon.”

District 150 board member Jim Stowell, who attended the meeting, said he was willing to consider the idea.

“If they want to put a state-of-the-art facility on our front door,” Stowell said, “I’ll consider it.”

Earlier Ardis said closing the Lakeview Branch could potentially trim $8 to $10 million off the price tag of the library’s expansion and renovation project, projected at $35 million.

“We’re very interested in this idea,” Ardis said.

“I’d say closing Lakeview is the only way to do it. Expo would be too close to Lakeview.”

He said the land the Lakeview Branch sits on could be given back to the Peoria Park District, which, he said, complains of being facility-poor.

“That saves us a big chunk of money and gives us a new branch. It would give everyone a little bit of what they want,” Ardis said.

“There’s enough votes with the right compromise. This council wants to do something to support the library. I’m very optimistic we’ll put together more than six votes.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, which lasted just more than an hour, Spears said all the city council wanted to do with the meeting was to make sure “no stone was left un-turned.”

Spears also confirmed what Ardis said about the possibility of closing the Lakeview Library Branch.

“It could be a possibility,” Spears said.

“But, we are in the preliminary stages.”

McKenzie said he is opposed to closing the Lakeview Branch, but conceded if a new branch is located at, or near, Richwoods High School, it makes no sense to leave the Lakeview Branch open.

“I’m opposed to closing Lakeview. It is well-used. It is much beloved,” McKenzie said.

“But, it is 1.6 miles to Lakeview from that site … If you build a state-of-the-art library there, it makes no sense to have Lakeview that close.”

However, McKenzie said, he struggles with the rationale behind the mayor’s reasoning.

The meeting was held at the District 150 administrative offices with only a few elected members of each board so that the press and public could be excluded from the meeting.

McKenzie said after the meeting, the library board would have to wait and see what the full school board decides. 

But, he had reservations the project can be done on Richwoods High School property alone. He said a new North Peoria branch would need five to six acres of land. He said the Richwoods property offers only three acres. That could potentially put the project onto property owned by Expo Gardens as well.

That possibility was raised by Ardis also.

“It’s not necessarily Expo we have in mind. It could be Expo or District 150 property or both,” Ardis said.

Larry Clay, president of the Expo Gardens board, said, June 3 there had been no formal talks with his board about this possibility, but he was aware of it.

“We haven’t stepped forward on this idea,” Clay said. “We are, however, dialoguing with the city about possibilities for this area.”

Clay said he was waiting for more information about the proposal.

“I’m looking for more information before becoming emotionally invested,” he said.

“From a logistical standpoint, it would seem to make sense with the nearby schools. From an economic standpoint, I don’t know. But, we’re not going to close any doors.”

Clay said with 80 acres of land, Expo Gardens could accommodate all or part of a new library branch.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about the dynamics of a library here,” Clay said.

“We wouldn’t be worried about the type of people using it.”         

Tension

As the hours ticked off from 6 p.m. June 23 to 6:15 p.m. June 24, the hopes of the Peoria Public Library Board to expand and improve the library system hung in the balance.

The outcome was one that left library board members smiling June 24 as they sat in the front row of the galley at the Peoria City Council meeting.

The council, that evening, voted 10-1 to approve $28 million in bonding.

While the amount was below the $35 million the library board sought, the approval came with no strings attached as far as the site for a new North Peoria branch.

McKenzie said the Richwoods High School/Expo Gardens site preferred by many on the council, while still in the mix, seemed far less likely to be the site. 

Only Sandberg voted against the compromise.

He said the amount was too little.

“Based on the one-on-one conversations we had, we agree with the council this is the best compromise for the city at this time,” McKenzie said.

“I hope in the future, we can continue to work together for the citizens of Peoria,” indicating a possible thawing of relations between the council and library board which had become strained.

Third District councilman Bob Manning said he was pleased.

“We’re going to get a new North Peoria branch” he said.

“It just may not be everything desired and hoped for.”

McKenzie, rising to address the council again, agreed with Manning.

“Some major part is going to be delayed for some time,” he said.

“I would expect it to be Lakeview, but that’s only my opinion.”

A decision

On July 1, following an hour in executive session and a break to contact members of the Peoria City Council and property owners, McKenzie said a unanimous decision for a North Branch location was made during the board’s meeting.

Board member Dr. Frank Gold read a resolution stating the board’s recommendation for the site is a 6.12 acre section of land within Medina Plains Corporate Park, located northwest of the new Menard’s location off Townline Road.

Gold said the purchase price for the property was $1.1 million, with an estimated value of $1.5 million.

“The $398,629 difference in price is a donation from the owner, Medina Plains LLC, to the library,” Gold said.

Mike Landwirth, principal and chairman of the Wald/Land Corporation, said there are five lots surrounding the property that the North Branch will be located on which will be rezoned to office property.

He added the property offers good visibility from Route 6 and street access, along with connections for sewer, water, gas and electricity.

McKenzie said construction on the North Branch was not expected to start until spring  2009.

An estimate, based on bond rates from June 30, shows a homeowner whose house if worth $250,000 would pay about  $78.50, or $6 a month, in additional property taxes. For a homeowner with a house valued at $150,000, the owner’s property taxes would increase about $47.10.

A home appraised at $100,000, would cost a homeowner an additional $31.40, and a home valued at $50,000, would cost the owner an increase of $15.70 in property taxes.