Working to Upgrade Peoria’s Public Libraries

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Peoria’s intellectual safety net is about to receive its first major upgrade in half a century with the improvement and expansion of the city’s library system.

The City Council is heeding the voice of the Peoria citizenry and taking steps to improve the Peoria Public Library system with the renovation of the downtown library and McClure branch as well as additions to the Lakeview and Lincoln branches while also looking into creating a new north side location. While citizens who use the Peoria Public Library System have been voicing concerns regarding the library’s limited weekend hours and small space for resources, Peoria City Council members also wish to improve library facilities so that branch locations throughout the city will offer an equal level of quality service.

According to At-Large City Councilman and library liaison Gary Sandberg, the library expansion project has been ongoing for nearly a decade. “This wasn’t something that just surfaced within the last year,” he says. “It came about due to a recognition of dynamics. The city was sprawling to the north, and the northwest side was underserved.”

An article written by Mike McKenzie of the Peoria Public Library Board of Trustees stated that nearly 600,000 people utilize the Peoria Public Library system each year, and nearly $62,000 worth of library items are used by community members on any given day.

“The public has recognized the need for change,” says Sandberg.

An Overwhelming Majority

The population that makes use of the city’s library system falls across class lines. Cracks in the system affecting both the city’s poor and affluent eventually led to an overwhelming majority of citizens—72 percent—voting in favor of the $35 million bond referendum to improve the libraries. The vote took place on April 17th of last year. Although the Peoria City Council controls the library budget and could have issued the bonds without citizen approval, the council was wary of voting for a tax increase without putting the referendum on the ballot.

“It is important to note that the referendum received 72 percent approval in every city precinct,” says Peoria Public Library Director Edward Szynaka. “Seventy-two percent is significant. It is a very persuasive percentage by the citizens. In fact, it’s the largest percentage ‘yes’ vote on a library bond issue in the state’s history as told to us by those in Springfield.” Szynaka believes one of the reasons the referendum received such a high percentage is due to the fact that the library facilities have received very little attention for nearly forty years. “I think our citizens realize that this master plan is going to remedy that problem,” he says.

According to Szynaka, more than half of Peoria residents have library cards, and about 1,600 people use the libraries daily. Peoria’s lower classes, listed by Peoria School District 150 as comprising nearly 70 percent of its students, use the library for access to computers and learning materials. “The voters value the importance of the library and the library services,” says Sandberg. “That’s why every district voted in overwhelming support.”

Former Common Place Director Nancy Rakoff agrees and says that although it is difficult for citizens to vote themselves a tax increase, she believes the citizens acted based on the dire need of the city and the possibility of bringing positive change where it is needed. “There was a very broad range of people involved,” she says. “The vote passed in all five council districts fairly substantially. It wasn’t just the wealthy citizens who wanted this bond referendum.”

The $35 million will buy bonds that will be paid back over a period of twenty years by increasing property taxes. According to Sandberg, the Library Board is working to ensure that no more than $35 million in bonds will be needed so that taxpayers will not pay more than what they voted for. Sandberg claims that according to the referendum, the property tax will be no less than 15 cents and no more than 16 cents per $1,000, estimating out to be about 15.2 cents per $1,000 of assessed evaluation and making the annual property tax increase on a $100,000 home about $15.00.

Search for a North Branch

The property tax increase will fund the expansion of Peoria’s library system by helping to cover the purchase of a new building to serve Peoria’s north side. According to Szynaka, site selection is in process for Peoria’s north branch. The Farnsworth Group Inc., a Peoria architectural firm, was hired to locate a new north branch building. According to a report on the Preliminary Site Selection for a Potential North Branch Library drawn up on April 10, 2008, Farnsworth is currently assessing the possibility of locating vacant buildings for sale or acres of available land as close as possible to the intersection of Allen Road and Pioneer Parkway.

The search for a north branch building began with six or seven possible sites, including the former Shopko building, the eServ building, and the former Menards building. The search eventually dwindled down to three potential sites, two of which are vacant big “box” buildings. Greenfield sites of approximately 5 acres in size located along Allen Road are also being considered. “We need to come up with a northern branch with no new operational costs,” says Sandberg.

The two leading buildings for the site are the old Festival Foods grocery store, located at North Point Shopping Center along Knoxville Avenue, and the old K’s Merchandise building, located at the corner of Sommer Street and Pioneer Parkway. However, the current asking price for Festival Foods is significantly high, and both buildings are much larger than the proposed library space of 35,000 to 40,000 square feet. The report also states that the ideal site or building chosen should possess a significant location to a major street so that the public can find it easily. Sandberg claims that although citizens are pulling for the purchase of an existing building, buying undeveloped land may be the cheaper option. “We have to do what is most cost-effective,” he says.

The Library Board has also consulted citizens regarding a suitable location for the new library. According to Szynaka, the Board plans to keep the selection process open to public opinion as a way of continuing to promote good relations with voters who supported the library expansion project last year.

Once a location is determined, an existing one level of commercial property will be renovated. The earliest construction date is estimated to be in the summer of 2009.

Improvements &Additions

Aside from the selection of a new north branch, much discussion has been raised regarding improvements to existing branch locations. The downtown branch, located on 107 N.E. Monroe and built in 1967, is in sufficient need of repairs as well as upgrades in technology. Four of the five levels of the existing main branch library will be updated; two of the levels are below ground, and two are above ground. According to a draft report of the Peoria Public Library Building Programming Study drawn up on March 13 of this year, updating the main branch includes refinishing 21,395 square feet of existing space and renovating 56,126 square feet of existing space on the four levels. Improvements will involve replacing floor and ceiling finishes as well as repainting walls.

Technological improvements are also a priority. “Upgrading computers and information technology is a huge component to increasing the quality of our local libraries,” says Sandberg. The City Councilman claims that interior improvements to the downtown library will help bring the library up to twenty-first century standards rather than those of the twentieth century. Bringing the downtown library up-to-date involves increasing customer self-sufficiency by allowing customers to check out books themselves with the implementation of a self-serve system similar to the systems in local grocery stores. “There’s a lot of new demands and new services to be brought in that the citizens want,” he says.

According to Szynaka, the interior of the downtown library should be renovated with the goal of increasing efficiency. Promoting efficient workflow means having the right amount of space to work effectively with various resources. Szynaka says that space will be created by opening up the area below the first floor of the library to the public. The board will also evaluate the library’s collection of antique volumes. The volumes are part of the library’s original collection. “When we finish with this project, all of the libraries will have the physical space to house the private collections of all the locations,” Szynaka says.

In addition to interior improvements in the existing facility, the main branch will also receive a 6,292 square foot four-story addition located along the building’s Northeast side. The addition will include a glass entry volume circulation tower with stairs and elevator, washrooms, and accessory spaces. Other building strategies include relocating the library entrance to the north side of the building, adjacent to the parking lot and Monroe Street. The earliest construction date for the new addition is estimated to be the summer of 2009.

The Lakeview branch, located on 1137 West Lake Avenue, will also require expansion and renovation. The addition to the old facility, now approximately 12,000 square feet, will be 20,212 square feet and will be one level to match the existing building. The new addition will be located along the North and East facade of the library.

The library system’s Lincoln Avenue branch, located on the south side of the city, west of downtown, will also undergo expansion. The addition will be one level approximately 14,016 square feet and will be located along the south façade of the existing building. Construction for both the Lincoln and Lakeview branches is estimated to begin in the summer of 2010.

Located in a residential neighborhood west of the intersection between McClure and Knoxville Avenue, the McClure Branch will experience no new additions at this time due to the fact that the library is located on a flood plain. Instead, both levels of the branch will undergo renovation, including repainting and refinishing walls and floors.

All library locations will have the same types of facilities with the same level of quality. “All of our library locations will have designated functional uses in the buildings for computers as well as equal meeting room facilities,” says Szynaka.

Szynaka claims interior improvements to the library branches will not require the hiring of new employees. The City Council wishes to forgo creating more jobs in order to stay within the limits of the $8.2 million operational budget. Keeping the same number of employees will require redesigning the downtown library to eliminate some working compartments. “In 1968, the downtown building was constructed to be compartmentalized in order to fit the outline of having several employees,” says Sandberg. “By opening up the first floor, it will eliminate the compartments, and we can move some of the employees from downtown to staff the north branch.”

Looking Ahead

Although the library expansion has been nearly a decade in the making—eight years to be exact—project leaders claim meeting deadlines is not the priority. “The main thing we are concerned with right now is the process,” says Sandberg. “We’re not so much concerned with rushing the process in order to meet a deadline as we are with taking the time we need to do it right, use the $35 million bond referendum, and ultimately meet the needs of the citizens.”

Rakoff agrees and adds: “This project has been worked on for a long time. But the important thing is that the library is going through all the steps it needs to in order to ensure what’s best for the people.”

Members of the Library Board as well as the City Council are optimistic that improving the library system will lead to community development and economic growth. And with the demand for the city’s library services on the rise, it’s likely Peoria citizens will reap rewards on their investment.