Plans to rebuild the 33-year-old River Center Library in the heart of Baton Rouge’s downtown could be thwarted by a Metro Council effort scheduled for consideration Wednesday.
The council will consider approving a resolution “requesting and urging” the Library Board of Control to end its current $19 million plan to tear down the library and build a new one, and instead move forward with renovating the existing structure.
The agenda item was sponsored by council members Mike Walker, Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois, Donna Collins-Lewis and Ulysses “Bones” Addison.
This resolution does not force the library board to act, Parish Attorney Mary Roper said, but the council does have the ability to pass something later with stronger language that would prevent the new library from being built.
“Whatever we decide to do for anything has to be approved by the council anyway, so we might as well get on board with what they are urging us to do,” Library Board member Stan Bardwell said. “It would not seem to me to make a lot of sense to take an opposite position from what the council wants.”
This time, even Library Board President Kizzy Payton, who has advocated the need for the new building for more than a year, said the board may end up having to compromise in order to move the project forward.
“We have to do the best thing to ensure this library project is saved because it’s important to Baton Rouge,” she said. “That may mean a compromise must be reached to ensure the library is moved forward.”
She said she still believes there is a need for an upgraded and expanded library for downtown to take the place of the River Center branch.
“But we may have to look at how to accomplish that differently,” she said.
If the Metro Council passes the resolution, Payton said the library board is expected to consider it at the board’s October meeting.
The downtown library has ignited a heated debate in the parish over the past year between opponents who see it as an example of wasteful spending and supporters who herald it as an iconic downtown fixture that could boost economic development and prestige.
The debate appeared to be over in December, when the Metro Council narrowly voted in favor of allowing the library system to use $19 million of its own budget to build the new library.
But since the December vote, some council members have said they would attempt to kill the library reconstruction by voting down architects and potential budget supplements that will inevitably go to the council for approval to move the project forward.
Addison, in December, voted in favor of allowing the library system to use its budget allocation for the new library.
On Wednesday, Addison said he initially supported the measure because he wanted to give the board and staff a chance to move forward with the project, but he expected to eventually receive some justification for the project costs.
After meeting with staff and board members, Addison said he is not satisfied with the justification to rebuild for $19 million rather than a less-expensive renovation.
“The volume of users and circulation still doesn’t justify the need,” he said. “No one ever told me ‘Here’s how we’re going to attract more people.’ You have to prove that it’s going to be more than just a showpiece for downtown.”
The funds to rebuild the library come from a dedicated property tax, so the money can only be used for other library operations.
“But just because taxpayers vote for the tax doesn’t mean we should use their money lavishly,” Addison said.
Councilwoman Collins-Lewis said she’d like to see a more reasonable proposal to consider.
“I’ve always felt like they could just renovate their current space,” she said. “It’s a solid building. I know it’s old, but I think there’s a fair and reasonable amount of money that could be used to bring it up to date and provide technology and everything they want to do.”
Councilwoman Alison Gary, who was one of five council members in December who voted to support the funding for the new library construction, said she’d be more open to asking the library board to change its plans if the council specified a budget.
“If they’re going to bring it back, I’d rather see a dollar amount attached to it instead of just forcing them to renovate,” she said. “You might be able to tear down and rebuild and have a better product for the same prices as an expensive renovation.”
She expressed concern that the council could kill the project entirely, and said at this point she would consider the reconstruction over a rebuild “if that’s what it’s going to take to get the project going.”
“I just want downtown to have a great library,” she said. “I think it deserves it and it warrants it.”