Something's Got to Give at Boise's Main Library 

Fix, renovate or build a new facility?

Boise loves its main public library. More than 80,000 patrons walked through the doors in March and system-wide visits topped 130,000. That's 36 percent more people walking into the Capitol Boulevard repository than in March 2010. Visitors checked out more than 135,000 titles and quizzed librarians at the adult and youth reference desks more than 10,000 times.

"The numbers just haven't leveled off yet," said Kevin Booe, Boise Library director. "The main library continues to show more and more growth."

But Boiseans may be loving their main library a bit too much. Major repairs and maintenance are due, expected to total $2.6 million over the next four to five years. And patrons are finding less elbow room. The Boise public library system, including all branches, provides .42 square feet per Boise citizen, less than half the industry standard. Booe laid all of the latest statistics on the table recently when he briefed his library's commission and Boise City Council members.

"My question was direct," said Booe. "How much were they willing to invest in this existing structure, or do they want to do something different?"

Chapter One: A Design for a Population of 75,000

Boise's earliest public library can be traced to an 1895 free reading room in Boise City Hall. The city's first official public library opened its doors at 815 W. Washington St. in June 1905. By the 1970s, city leaders decided to spend $2.6 million to purchase and renovate the old Salt Lake Hardware Warehouse into a new library at its current site, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. The original design of the library targeted a Boise population of only 75,000. In 2010, Boise's population topped 205,000. An additional $2 million was invested to expand the library up to a third floor--the building has an unoccupied fourth floor. The current layout includes 78,000 gross square feet with 52,000 used for library space.

Boise expanded its library network in 2007 to include three new neighborhood branches (Collister, Hillcrest, and Cole and Ustick). A fourth is planned at Bown Crossing in Southeast Boise. But attendance at the main branch has continued to grow, topping 1.3 million in-person visits during fiscal year 2010.

Chapter Two: Growing Pains

In 2000, a consultant presented three options to BPL trustees and Boise City Council members:

1. Approximately $40 million: build a new 185,000-square-foot facility to accommodate needs for the next 25 to 50 years.

2. Approximately $21.8 million: expand the current building toward Capitol Boulevard or the Boise River. However, Booe said the option "didn't really accommodate our needs out to 50 years."

3. Approximately $3 million: as a short-term solution, remodel the existing facility, opening the fourth floor to patrons.

New construction was the adopted recommendation but a looming recession kept the concept on a shelf. In 2010, the idea for a new main library resurfaced, but by then, the projected construction cost had ballooned to $118 million. In March, Booe sat down with his BPL commission and Boise City Council members in an effort to jumpstart the conversation. In his proposed 2012 budget, Booe will ask for $70,000 to once more pay a consultant for an updated study.

"This is a huge endeavor," said Booe. "It could easily turn into the largest public project in Idaho. It needs serious consideration with professionals behind it."

Booe acknowledged that garnering support from public officials is only part of the solution.

"In terms of getting something like this finished? I'm convinced it needs a private-sector champion," said Booe.

Chapter Three: To Invest and Reinvest

Boise developer Mark Rivers said he always wanted Boise to have "something in the fire." For him, that included his BODO project, a mere three blocks from the main library.

"I've got about 20 good years left in me, and I want some pretty darn cool things to happen in those 20 years," said Rivers. "I just don't want to sit around and see the same damn city in 20 years that I'm seeing today."

Rivers sees Eighth Street as "the spinal cord" of Boise, running through downtown, across Front Street into BODO and toward the Boise River.

"But that lower spinal cord, where the library sits, is dysfunctional," said Rivers. "Why couldn't we, in our lifetime, fulfill a grand dream?"

Rivers said his dream is the same as many others: a new main library to help anchor the Eighth Street corridor.

"I did a calculation once. The four city blocks down there contribute only about $55,000 in property taxes. It's a silly number. It's like nothing. To me, what the public sector should be doing is finding a way to jump-start some new activity down there," Rivers said, pointing in the library's direction. "A great main public library could bookend an excellent corridor for business and the arts."

While Rivers and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter don't agree on everything, their hopes for a new library echo one another.

"Libraries represent the sum of our community's knowledge," said Bieter. "We need to build a new main library to make good on our belief that our future success relies on learning."

As for the financial slap in the face of a nine-figure price tag to build a new main branch, both Bieter and Rivers say it's time to swing for the fences.

"The cost of this endeavor is certainly significant," said Bieter. "But the cost of not doing it is far greater."

Rivers added, "We've had study groups in the past tell us that we may not be able to afford it and maybe we can't. But not too long ago, we thought we couldn't afford to protect the Foothills. As a community, you need to dream, to prioritize, to invest and now reinvest."

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