Our New Library: How the Aspen Report Paved the Way

Posted by Cynthia Berner on February 07, 2018 at 1:38 PM

The new central Wichita Public Library is scheduled to open at the beginning of summer 2018, and it’s been 17 years in the making. Life’s events resulted in a variety of stops and starts but the outcome is well worth the wait.

Looking Back to Move Forward

The effects of 9/11 wreaked havoc on the country and particularly in Wichita where the aviation industry is a key player in our economy. In 2001, the Wichita Public Library was in the middle of implementing a master plan for its branches, but after 9/11 our projections for what would be happening in the Wichita community were no longer accurate. So, we went to work on realigning that plan.

At the same time, our community leaders began to create a vision for downtown. This caused the library board to realize that not only did they need to be thinking about branches (the focus of our previous facilities plan), but a long-term plan for the central library as well.

In 2006, a completed plan was endorsed by the Wichita City Council. The first project in the plan was a replacement of the central library. In 2007, the City Council acquired property for a new location for the library. $30 million was added to the City’s Capital Improvement Program as a placeholder to jumpstart the project. In 2008 the recession hit, and everything stopped again.

It wasn’t until 2013-2014 that the project started to again gain traction. In the interim, there were various studies where questions arose – should we repurpose and reuse the current building? Why do we need a public library? How do we know libraries are going to remain relevant? How do we know libraries will need physical facilities? Working together, the Library Board, our Library Foundation Board and City Council worked to provide answers to these questions.

It was about this time that we started to launch a capital campaign for the new building. I had just received the Aspen Institute report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, and I sent it to our Foundation president who was leading the capital campaign. It was an “A-ha” moment for each of us. Everything that we had talked about was in the report – from experts. When we would go out to talk about the library project, skeptics would say, “Well, how do you know?” Now, we had something we could show them.

The timing was perfect for us and for our project. It gave us an important resource in our toolbox to use as we were having those conversations in our community. It confirmed that we were well aligned with what was in the report.

Raising Capital

The Aspen report was the go-to resource for our capital campaign. We handed out copies during initial conversations with potential donors and with key stakeholders. This gave them the opportunity to absorb the information.

Having access to the Aspen report emboldened our staff to go out and have those important conversations with skeptical community leaders, and it re-energized them to continue to go out and nurture the believers

When we drafted our capital campaign case statement, our team built it on the three pillars of people, place and platform outlined in the Aspen report. It was a great way to talk about the building – which has been named the Advanced Learning Library. Through the report and our additional efforts, people in the community began to understand that libraries are more than stacks of books.

As I mentioned, the funding for the library was $30 million of general obligation (GO) bond funding within the City of Wichita’s Capital Improvement Program. A community vote was not necessary for this project, but with concerns about approaching the benchmark cap for bonding debt, the City Manager approached the Library Foundation Board and asked if money could be raised to contribute to the project. He knew that the City could fund $27.5 million of the project, but getting the last $2.5 million within the debt limit would be difficult.

The Library Foundation Board took that challenge. When the project was started in 2006, the building was projected to cost more than $30 million. Over time; however, that initial placeholder amount became a firm budget. To stay on budget, we reworked the building program into a phased construction design. The hope of our Foundation President was to find one donor who could make a large gift that enable the future expansion to be completed as part of the initial construction. And, they did that. A $3 million gift to the capital campaign for expansion of children’s and local history research areas raised the capital campaign to $5.5 million. Inspired by their success, the Board also realized that during the course of the project more needs would be identified, so they decided to try to raise an additional $2.5 million as a “margin of excellence.”

The goal that was originally set at $2.5 million went to $8 million. I’m pleased to say that we have exceeded that $8 million goal. The Aspen report was an invaluable resource that helped us to make the project successful.

More Than Good Enough

The tide has turned. We went through many years of people saying, “We don’t need a new library. The current building is good enough. Public libraries have no future. I can get all the information I need on my smart phone,” to “We can’t wait. This is amazing. Wichita is so lucky to get this new library.”

The report was definitely a wonderful resource for us, but the real anchor of our success was found in the dedication of the library and community leaders that made the project happen. It can be very discouraging to start and stop, start and stop and to be continually challenged by skeptics. But our leadership was patient and they were passionate. I think that concept of being emboldened to persevere was key to making this project a reality.

A Bold New Advanced Learning Library

The building will be at a point of substantial completion in early 2018. We are hoping to be in and open for business by the start of summer 2018.

Our current building is less than 50% accessible to the public. It’s about 40% public; 60% behind the scenes. The new building is about 75% public space. We will have wide open, flexible spaces. We will be well position to do what we need to do, not only today but well into the future as our business continues to change.

We can’t wait to open the doors and show off the Advanced Learning Library to the community.

To learn more about the project, visit here: http://www.wichitalibrary.org/About/ALL.

Cynthia Berner
Director of Libraries
Wichita Public Library

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