As Johnson County’s library system embarks on its first construction projects of the 21st century, Director Sean Casserley is already envisioning the family-friendly and customer-service components that put the “public” first in these new public libraries.
Drive-up windows to help busy moms retrieve materials without having to get out of their cars. A “storywalk path” to let kids learn about letters and sounds. Automation equipment to get books back on the shelves and into circulation more quickly.
“We are taking a page from Target and Walmart,” Casserley said, adding that the system is looking at the best in retail and hospitality trends. “We’re taking our inventory and putting it in front of the customers faster.”
The first new branch opens this fall in western Shawnee, which has clamored for such a facility since the 1990s. The $18 million Monticello Library, just off Shawnee Mission Parkway and West 66th Street, features ample meeting rooms and a flexible, open design that can be adapted as community needs change.
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Another $21 million library is on tap to open mid-2019 in the Lenexa City Center, 8778 Penrose Lane, replacing the popular but cramped Lackman branch near 87th and Lackman.
They are the first significant projects resulting from a library property tax increase authorized in 2015. And they’re also an outgrowth of a master plan that found new libraries were urgently needed for Johnson County’s growing population, especially in the northwest and southeast sectors.
But who’s next out of the gate?
Other Johnson County communities also have big library needs, and balancing all those priorities is tough.
“It’s very challenging, trying to be all things to all people at all times,” says library board chairwoman Nancy Hupp. “We have to look carefully at what is the highest priority and what funding would be available.”
After years of recession and budget constraints, the Johnson County library system is in major growth mode, and Casserley couldn’t be more pleased.
He points out that nearly half of Johnson County’s residents have a library card (275,000 out of 580,000 residents) and that the county’s average of 15 library books per card holder per year is higher than any other library system in this region.
“What I’m most excited about is this community. It is fundamentally curious. It loves learning and supports libraries,” Casserley said, adding that that’s true of teens and millennials as well as families and older adults. “It’s a community that reads.”
Still, the library system’s growth spurt raises the question of which Johnson County city should be next in line for an upgrade.
Hupp, who also serves on the Merriam City Council, and other Merriam leaders are pushing to replace the aging branch at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch Road. They want to incorporate a new library into Merriam’s voter-approved community center complex, planned in Vavra Park east of the Ikea store overlooking I-35.
But that has to be weighed against other needs, primarily Overland Park’s heavily used Blue Valley branch and the outdated Corinth branch in Prairie Village.
The library mill levy increase is now generating nearly $6 million per year, which is paying for these library projects that are bonded over time.
But even with that additional funding, a finance report at the December library board meeting showed that adding a new Antioch branch to current priorities would create a deficit of more than $900,000 in 2023.
Still, Casserley thinks there’s a way to adjust and broaden the project timeline to make the finances work. He declined to provide details but said those plans will become more apparent at Thursday’s library board meeting, open to the public.
Monticello leads the way
Western Shawnee has needed a library for years, says retired Shawnee banker Charley Vogt, who served on the library board from 2005 to 2013. The money wasn’t available until now, but Vogt says this timing is perfect.
“It actually became a good thing that we waited this long because the whole nature of libraries has changed,” Vogt said. “Many people had the conception that a library was racks and racks of books and tables and chairs. That was probably the case in 2005 when I came on the board, but today the library of the future has so many dimensions to it.”
He said residents clamored for different kinds of public meeting spaces, since Shawnee’s other library at Johnson Drive and Pflumm Road has just one community room. For western Shawnee’s growing neighborhoods, the Johnson Drive location is at least six miles away.
John Smith, president of the Greenview Ridge Homeowners Association, says this new library is very welcome for the neighborhood of about 170 homes, which has lots of children living in the vicinity of Kansas 7 and West 47th Street .
“Certainly for children, we needed the Internet connectivity, and after school I think that will be very good for them,” he said.
Architect Rick Wise, senior principal with the Clark Enersen Partners architects, says it’s not modeled on any other library but is unique for Johnson County and for the site.
Among the features of the 30,000-square-foot structure, being built by McCownGordon Construction:
▪ Multiple different high-tech meeting rooms, including one that can seat 100 people.
▪ A rooftop terrace, with seating and plantings.
▪ Laptops that patrons can use throughout the building.
The new library won’t have a MakerSpace room like the popular but expensive facility at the Central Resource Library. These are rooms where inventors and crafters can tinker and experiment with 3D printers and other media, design equipment and electronics. But Monticello will have MacIntosh computers for public use and content creation software on some machines.
The 40,000-square-foot Lenexa branch, designed by Hollis+Miller and Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture, is also envisioned as a major new destination. It will benefit from proximity to the mixed-used Lenexa City Center at 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard, which has a public market, civic buildings and growing residential neighborhoods nearby.
The idea to speed up Merriam’s new library gained momentum after Merriam voters last September approved plans for a $30 million community center just east of the Ikea store. Planners hope to complete the community center in mid-2020.
City and library leaders in October began exploring the enticing possibility of adding a new Antioch library to that complex.
“It would be completely ideal,” Casserley said. “I think it would be great just for a family to be able to park, go for a swim, go to the community center and go to the library.”
Hupp believes fervently that the library system should seize this opportunity to partner with the city of Merriam.
“It makes so much sense to have a library on that site so people can do truly one-stop recreation,” she said. “You go and work out and, ‘Oh, let’s stop at the library and pick up a book.’ ”
She said time is of the essence to make a decision, because the selection of a design/build contract for the Merriam community center starts soon.
But that could mean pushing back plans for the Blue Valley and Corinth branches, which also have major needs. Population growth continues to strain Blue Valley, and plans call for adding 40,000 square feet to the 22,000-square-foot facility at 9000 W. 151st St. in Overland Park. Blue Valley is in the conceptual design phase, with an estimated cost of $44 million and a possible 2022 opening.
The Corinth branch, at 8100 Mission Road in Prairie Village, remains one of the metro area’s busiest libraries, but it is also one of the system’s oldest branches, dating from 1968, and has major infrastructure issues. Specific planning work is pending, as is an estimated cost.
Casserley and Hupp said recent focus group discussions have shown residents have a greater sense of urgency around the Antioch and Corinth branches than with Blue Valley, so there may be a way to adjust the timelines for all three to make the finances work.
“There’s a way to make it work. Stay tuned,” Casserley said. “And a way to make it work and not run into deficit.”