Chesterton Tribune

Library running out of space but future is murky

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Had Westchester Public Library’s Thomas branch in Chesterton been almost doubled in size using the design proposed in 2001, library officials now believe it would have been a mistake.

Not anticipating the explosion of demand for public-access computers, the relocated computer room called for by the architect would be woefully small by today’s standards.

That was the opinion of Library Board members and library director Phil Baugher at the board’s Thursday meeting.

Two months after the 2001 expansion plans were received, WPL’s biggest taxpayer, Bethlehem Steel, went bankrupt throwing the library system into financial uncertainty. WPL survived, started saving cash with a facilities expansion still in mind and today has $5 million invested for whenever the project begins.

The 2001 recommended concepts and estimated costs done by Carow Architects Planners LLC of Chicago for Thomas as well as for Hageman Library in Porter both exceeded what library officials had intended, said Baugher.

In addition to expansions at each, rather than update and slightly reconfigure the existing 26,840 square-foot Thomas (and doing the same to 11,550 square-foot Hageman), a total gut of the buildings was proposed requiring an interruption of service and having to move/store collections during construction --- neither option welcomed by current library officials.

The scope of work led to a $17.7 million pricetag for the entire project at both buildings. “It was a lot more elaborate than we asked for or were anticipating,” said board member Rick Hokanson.

Having purchased the Library Service Center east of Thomas prior to 2001 helped ease some congestion pressure, said Baugher, but basic problems at Thomas remain like undersized, non-ADA-complaint restrooms and no space to expand them.

And the same question that stymied the 2001 board still lingers regarding a Thomas addition that would take up most of its west parking lot --- where would WPL find more parking space?

The downtown library has an overflow lot on the west side of Third Street and an underutilized LSC overflow lot a half block away, but an expanded Thomas Library likely would require additional accessible parking. Baugher said if the Chase drive-up window property adjacent to the LSC were to become available, WPL would be interested in acquiring it.

For the time being Baugher recommended waiting on any expansions. “We’re on the cusp of things changing pretty radically in the next two years,” he advised. Attempts have been made in Indianapolis to consolidate libraries, eliminate township government and possibly prevent libraries from accumulating cash.

Commented board member Sharon Robbins, “It’s hard because the future’s so uncertain at this point, more so than I can remember.”

Baugher told the board, “I see the need to do something eventually. I don’t see a need to so it tomorrow. It’s not like we’re squirreling away money with no plan.”

The director said the Library Board may want to discuss raising less in property taxes to slow the rate of cash savings in 2012, however, less collected now will increase the amount of incurred debt when expansion does occur, he noted.

Some building maintenance likely will take place this year, at Thomas exterior painting of the metal trim and at the LSC a cosmetic upgrade of the 1977 restroom surfaces.

Also Thursday, it was reported WPL circulation was up 1.2 percent in January over the same period last year with 32,928 items recently circulated. Visitor count dropped slightly at Thomas but increased at Hageman, the LSC and the WPL-operated Westchester Township History Museum.

Museum director Jane Walsh-Brown thanked Baugher for approving the purchase of four vintage photographs of George and Charity Brown; the museum is located in the Brown Mansion named after the family. The photos, including a framed marriage certificate in German, were acquired for $850 from Russ Stephens.

Walsh-Brown said the circa 1885 photographs are a wonderful addition to personalize the museum. “Charity’s photograph is in a beautiful gold frame and she’s back in her parlor.”

Baugher announced Vern Odom has been reappointed to the Library Board by the Westchester Township Board, and the Duneland School Board has reappointed Nick Tilden as well.



Posted 2/11/2011