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Officials weigh cost of building a new library

All week, Grand Forks library officials have asked area residents to tell them what they wish for in the proposed new library, and for just as long, they've been trying to overturn the perception that it'll be a fanciful, unaffordable monstrosity.

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All week, Grand Forks library officials have asked area residents to tell them what they wish for in the proposed new library, and for just as long, they've been trying to overturn the perception that it'll be a fanciful, unaffordable monstrosity.

"We are not planning to build a Taj Mahal; we're building a facility that will be very acceptable for a community of our size," said Susan Mickelson, who chairs the board.

The approximate price tag is $18.8 million, not including land costs, which are to be negotiated. For that kind of money, Grand Forks would get a "pretty good" library, said architect Rick McCarthy, whose firm Dewberry-PSA was hired by the library.

What he means, he said, is a library that would be built to last a century or longer like many government buildings. Special features, such as a reading room with a fireplace or meeting rooms wired for multimedia presentation, are not major costs by comparison.

"It'd be a very nice building, appropriate for a building that we want to be there for a generation or two," he said.


Mickelson said the board expects a functional building but added that amenities would have to come from private donations.

The board anticipates paying for the library with a short-term sales tax to be voted on publicly in April.

Then, there's the cost of running the place, which officials say should be about the same despite the building being 84 percent larger, thanks to energy-efficiency and automation.

Rough number

How did the library arrive at the $18.8 million figure?

That's a rough estimate for now because architects won't begin designing until voters approve funding. The number is the 68,800 square feet that consultants had recommended for a new library times the average cost for similar buildings.

This accounts for the entire project -- furniture and financing fees included -- except for land costs, Mickelson said. There is some hope that this represents the high end, she said, because the city has been receiving many bids from contractors that came in under engineers' estimates and interest rates remain very low.

Finance Director Saroj Jerath, in a letter to the Herald, estimates financing would cost $640,000 to $1.2 million. The city could avoid that if it waited a year to start the building so there's enough money collected for the initial phase while the rest would be paid for as tax dollars come in.


McCarthy cautioned against waiting too long, though, because labor and material costs along with interest rates are low now but may not be in a few years.


Added to the above costs are some unknowns.

Land costs are still to be negotiated.

The Leevers family has offered their old supermarket just south of DeMers Avenue for $1.3 million and would cut the price if the library would swap the land it now sits on. The city assessor estimates that land is worth $750,000 to $925,000. So, we're talking about costs potentially less than $1 million.

The Park District has offered land near the future wellness center on 40th Avenue South in exchange for $1 million in utility lines from the city, which would also be used by the library, and $1.5 million in loans.

The library would still be able to sell its land, again, potentially bringing costs down to much less than $1 million. Though selling vacant buildings can be tough -- there are a lot of them on South Washington near the library -- Mickelson said the Renaissance Zone tax incentives the council is offering there would attract buyers.

Farmland around the old Rex electronics store is also being considered, but the $1.9 million cost causes library officials to think it would not be a popular option for the public.


Also, the library would seek donations to pay for some of the more fanciful things, though it's not clear what that would entail as that awaits public input and a design from the architects.


The preferred way to pay, for library officials, is a short-term sales tax that would end whenever the library's paid for, similar to the way Fargo paid for its library expansion.

They're asking public input on two options. One is a ½-percent sales tax, which Jerath projects would last six years or less. The other is a 1-percent sales tax over three years or less.

She said the state tax department is estimating the average household with an income of $50,000 would pay $65 a year in the first option and $130 a year in the second.

Some of the sales tax burden would fall on shoppers from outside the city, including East Grand Forks, and library officials say they'd work on some sort of interlibrary loan system with East Side's library.

Addressing confusion by some community members, Mickelson said that by the time the city begins work on the ballot language in January, it will be able to specify the location and kind of sales tax.



Is it possible to bring construction costs down, say, by building a smaller library for now and expand as needed?

McCarthy the architect said libraries are typically sized to serve at least 20 years without needing an expansion. The proposed library would be about right for current usage and a few years out, he said. By the 15th year, he said, it'll probably get pretty tight and library staff would have to rearrange shelves or furniture.

What about not building at all? Couldn't the city lease existing space and renovate?

That's plausible for a branch location, McCarthy said, but it's harder for a main library. The footprint is about the size of a big box retailer, so there aren't many options and existing space is often older and not up to code, which means more money spent upgrading a space the city would not own, he said.

Libraries also have special needs such as higher ceilings to bounce light off of, reducing glare for easier reading, and the floors have to withstand 150 pounds per square foot because books are heavy, he said.

And, he said, adding features to increase efficiency wouldn't always be feasible in a leased space.

Such features include more windows and skylights to reduce lighting costs, better insulation to save on heat and good sight lines for staff so they can see more of the library and serve a larger area.

It's conceivable that a new library would be larger but cost no more to operate than the current library, McCarthy said. "That'd be a very legitimate thing to aim for, it's safe to say. But until we design it, it's hard to say." Some efficiency features cost more to build up front with a long payback period, he said, and that can be deterrence.

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