Wichita leaders to propose next steps toward downtown high-tech learning center

Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting could be the last stand for supporters who have backed a new downtown library for eight years.

Or it could be the first step in a drive toward a high-tech advanced learning center downtown, rather than a traditional library.

City officials plan to propose a series of summit meetings between the Wichita City Council and the city’s library board in an effort to break a standoff over the future of the downtown central library.

The council does not plan to build the new downtown central library supported by the board. Several council members say they want an advanced learning center – a high-tech library in the mold of the

James B. Hunt Jr. Library

at North Carolina State University. They envision a cradle-to-grave learning center unlike anything in the Midwest.

It’s unclear how such a learning center would be financed. The city is now working through how to prioritize a long list of projects that include a new water source, job creation and public transit.

Library board president Steve Roberts did not return a call seeking comment. Library director Cynthia Berner Harris said the only official board action is to support the $30 million building plan deferred last year by the council.

The city has spent $283,205 on plans for the new central library – almost $122,000 for the original building program, almost $21,000 to study the expansion of the current central library, and $140,000 on a modified building program in 2012 to cut the costs of the original $45 million library plan.

The summit meetings would be the first phase of a design plan for the learning center.

Those meetings would examine a wide variety of options, including renovating the current library, evaluating its suitability for a high-tech renovation, and constructing a new building for the learning center. The city will propose a preliminary design process, estimated to cost $402,000.

“As with other areas, we have infrastructure problems at the current building,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’d like to look at the costs of fixing them as opposed to the costs of building a new building.”

The talks, brokered by Layton and his staff, are “a pretty exciting opportunity to bring something to the community that will really enhance it,” Layton said.

Council member James Clendenin agreed.

“This concept has the potential to be an economic development tool for us ... something for Wichita that not too many people have,” he said.

Beneath that optimism at City Hall is strengthening support to drop the central library concept, characterized as a “book warehouse” by Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh. Several council members say that idea is outmoded, as the library industry shifts to interactive technology along with books.

“I absolutely think we need to look at something other than the traditional warehouse full of books,” the vice mayor said.

Council member Pete Meitzner supports the step-back that Layton and staff are recommending.

“I’m still evaluating so many of the options, like we’ve done with the golf business,” he said. “We’re in the middle of great information and dialogue about transit and our bus system.

“I’m still someone who supports an evaluation of the library system as a whole just because the business is changing.”

Blubaugh is concerned about the timing of the summit meetings proposal, given the $3 billion price tag for infrastructure improvements, job creation and quality of life projects the council received last week.

“We’re going in Tuesday looking at design costs of more than $400,000 for a project that we don’t know if we’re going to proceed with,” he said.

“Last Tuesday, a lot of things came out and now we’re talking a week later about spending $400,000 on the design of the library? What happened? Did the library float to the surface of the top needs for our city?”

Blubaugh said he wants library officials to explain how closely they looked at Max Cole’s proposal for a high-tech library in the Wichita Mall, and how closely they’ve worked with Occidental Management president Gary Oborny on alternate proposals downtown.

“It’s been, I don’t know, eight or nine months since we went through the process of starting design, and right now I wonder if internally the board even looked at some of the alternatives that have been floated,” he said.

Blubaugh acknowledged the deal cut by a prior council with the library board to build a new downtown facility – first around $45 million, then trimmed back to $30 million as the economy struggled. City Council members kicked the project down the line two years last summer as they sorted out mounting debt for the city’s capital improvements plan.

“Things have definitely changed from the discussions that happened pre-recession,” Blubaugh said. “We need to focus on today and what serves our citizens the best.”

Clendenin said that debt load will be the determining factor in any library-related project.

“We have to make sure, even if we build a learning center, that bonding it doesn’t drive our debt load up to a point that it hurts our credit rating,” he said.