Some candidates are wary of plans for a new $134M downtown library. Here's why
'[It's] simply too much money for the times that we're in,' mayoral challenger Rob Norris says
Planning for a new downtown Saskatoon library branch is already well underway, but some 2020 municipal election candidates — including two mayoral contenders — say the $134-million project should be put on hold.
Rob Norris and Cary Tarasoff, who are both looking to unseat Charlie Clark as mayor, each cited the current shaky economic climate as the principal reason for their skepticism about a new library.
"This project should not take place in our current financial situation, with diminished income and uncertain future burdens," Tarasoff wrote in a section of his campaign booklet entitled "proposed new large facilities."
Norris held a media event late last week to announce that, though he too wants a new downtown library, he would nevertheless seek councillors' support to rescind the decision city council made last November to approve $67.5 million in borrowing by the Saskatoon Public Library (SPL) board of trustees, which has jurisdiction over the project.
"Quite frankly, more than $130 million is simply too much money for the times that we're in," Norris said.
Call to pare down budget
Norris has called on the SPL board of trustees to shave $80 million to $100 million from the project budget, and cited comparatively cheaply-priced library projects in cities like Halifax, Guelph and Kitchener.
Norris and Tarasoff are not alone. Others have also voiced concerns.
Another mayoral candidate, Zubair Sheikh, said he's not opposed to the project, but questioned how many people still go to the library in the age of e-books.
One Ward 3 candidate, Mark Mills, agreed with Norris that the price tag should be cut back.
"Or at least have councillors watching it quite carefully," Mills said. "That's an awful lot of money. $67.5 million is fine if it stays at $67.5 million."
Library's footprint already reduced
The concerns about the library project come after what Clark cited as thousands of hours of planning over many years. They also come as the project approaches some significant milestones.
Carol Cooley, SPL's CEO, said a request for proposals for the design contract will be issued some time this month, with the winner selected in November — right around the time the new city council will be sworn in (Nov. 16).
The overall project timeline remains unchanged, Cooley said: construction is slated to begin on 2nd Avenue N (on the lot between 24th Street and 25th Street) in 2022, with the library opening its doors in 2026.
The project has downsized somewhat, shrinking to 136,000 square feet instead of the originally-planned 149,000 square feet, Cooley added.
That tightening happened in the wake of council's decision last fall to slash $20 million from SPL's requested borrowing limit, which had the effect of resetting the overall project budget (which is in 2026 dollars and includes the $9-million cost of the 2nd Avenue lot plus a 25-per-cent contigency) to $134 million.
"We're expecting that we'll still have many of the spaces or all of the spaces that we originally identified," Cooley said, citing a theatre and green space as examples.
Some spaces will just be decreased, such as reducing the number of seats in the theatre, she said.
Planning for a public gathering space in the midst of a pandemic has actually led to some positive changes, Cooley said.
"We could put shelves on wheels and roll them out of the way rather than having shelves that are fixed to the floor," she said.
Norris has questioned why the library isn't being paired in the same building with another public asset — an idea floated last fall by Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill and by Ward 6 Coun. Cynthia Block.
Norris said he also wants to know why SPL isn't casting its net wider to finance the project, citing potential funding sources such as the federal government.
Aside from the $67.5 million in borrowing, the project is expected to be financed through $4.6 million from the sale of the lot that's home to the current downtown Francis Morrison Central Library, $15 million in planned fundraising and $46.4 million from a new-library reserve.
As of last November, that reserve already contained $13 million. That money will be used to help pay back the loan.
The city will actually borrow the money and provide it to the library, which will pay back the borrowing and any interest.
"Where is affordability for taxpayers when it comes to this initiative?" Norris said Friday.
According to SPL, the average homeowner will pay an extra $4.66 in library levies (which are separate from property taxes) in 2021. By 2026, that figure will decrease to $1.57.
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'Usage is growing'
Some city councillors have come to the project's defence in the wake of the recent criticism.
"The cost of delaying a project like this that's been in development for this long will only make it more expensive to build down the road," Clark said. "It's clear from much of what we've heard from Mr. Norris that he's focused on moving the city backward."
Ward 7 Coun. Mairin Loewen said she would not be willing to reverse course on council's approval of the borrowing.
"The kinds of supports the library offers are the kinds of supports that a community in recovery from the economic hardship will need," she said.
Ward 2 Coun. Hilary Gough — who sits on the SPL board of trustees but spoke as a councillor and incumbent candidate — said the project's business case considered all costs, "including any cost to the city to carry the borrowed funds." She said this was carefully analyzed by city council last fall.
"Library membership and usage is growing, with a record 104,648 people attending programs last year and millions of materials circulated annually," Gough said. "The current downtown library cannot support the growth in our community and is beyond renovation."
Norris said he took a close look at the business plan, too, and cited the 6-5 vote on the borrowing as a sign there could be further fertile debate on the cost.
"I can't in good conscience agree with nor go along with council and Mayor Charlie Clark on what was a very close decision," he said.
- A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Calgary as a city Rob Norris cited as having a more cheaply-priced library project. In fact, Norris cited projects in Halifax, Guelph and Kitchener in his remarks.Sep 01, 2020 11:25 AM CT