Gary library hopes to turn page
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 July 14, 2013 12:14AM
Gary Library Board member Robert Buggs looks at the new front of the main library that's changed course from becoming the South Shore Cultural Center back to being a library. Buggs said the library sign will go back up. Wednesday, July 10, 2013. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 15, 2013 6:48AM
GARY — The main branch of the Gary Public Library, one of the city’s downtown anchors, is gutted and sitting in limbo as Library Board members plot to renew its life as a library again.
The events that led to the library’s altered state have raised some questions over the merits of an appointed board entrusted with tax dollars.
The elected Gary City Council has one appointment to the seven-member library board. The School Board has three appointments, the mayor of Gary has one and the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council each have one appointment.
The City Council does have a chance once a year to review the library system’s capital budget expenditures, said Council President Kyle Allen.
It was concern over the plummeting budget that led the library board to its unpopular decision to close the main library.
The saga began in 2010 when state tax caps and low tax collections in the city crippled the library system’s budget that’s bolstered by its own taxing authority. The board saw its budget cut 40 percent.
It vowed to close one of the city’s five libraries and stunned many when then board president Tony Walker backed a move to close the main library at 220 W. 5th Ave.
Walker and a majority of board members took heat from the community and wanted to avoid another downtown empty eyesore. They announced a plan to transform the 50-year-old building into a museum and cultural center, which Walker said could be operated cheaper than a library. He cited figures showing it would cost about $350,000 to run the building as a museum and cultural center, compared to $2.3 million as a library.
That notion ignited a firestorm and brought together a band of activist senior citizens who launched a court and political battle to save the library.
Meanwhile, the divided Library Board hired Powers & Sons Construction to renovate the library at a cost of $2.9 million. Architect plans were unveiled and demolition work began after the library closed in January 2011. Books and materials moved to other branches or into storage.
“In my opinion, it should have stayed a library,” Allen said. “I would have said maybe close one of the branches.”
Allen didn’t understand why the county has two appointments on the board. “As far as I know, Lake County contributes nothing to fund salaries and operations of the library, but they have two appointments.”
Opponents of the museum/cultural center pressured the Lake County Council to dump its appointed board member Cynthia Watts and replace her with someone who opposed the change. Watts was recalled by the council, which appointed a member sympathetic to keeping the building as a library.
Meanwhile, however, workers had removed and gutted the inside of the library and installed a new exterior colorful facade proclaiming it the South Shore Museum and Cultural Center.
State Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, watched confounded from the sidelines.
“Everybody in Gary has an idea about what should happen and they have to get on the same page,” she said. “Everything that starts one way blossoms into this catastrophic bomb. It has 20,000 legs and you can’t contain it anymore.”
Lawson proposed an unsuccessful bill in the General Assembly’s last session that would free appointed library boards in Lake County from municipal review, if the budget increase doesn’t exceed the percentage increase in the rest of the state.
“I want to help libraries. They’re the most valuable things we have in our communities, especially in Gary,” she said.
Early last year, Walker resigned from the library board citing an expansion of his busy law firm. The School Board replaced him with Walker critic Robert Buggs who said recently he hopes the library can be reopened by the end of the year.
But last week, no construction workers could be found. Buggs said Powers wanted $2.2 million to put the library back together in its former footprint. Buggs and other board members think that price tag is too steep and they plan to bid out the project.
Buggs said Powers has received $200,000 thus far for its demolition work.
Interim library director Diana Morrow said the board may consider closing one of its branches to free up more money to operate the main library. Morrow said although the library advertised its 2014 budget at $5.6 million, she expects to receive only about $2.8 million.
“Our goal is to open this back up as the Gary Public Library and Cultural Center. We want to have art exhibits and different events for the community. Our goal is to use all the space,” she said.
Both Buggs and Morrow say it may not be possible to award a contract and get the refurbishing completed by year’s end.
Buggs said his term on the board expired in June and he hasn’t heard from the School Board about whether he’ll be reappointed.
“If I’m dumped, I’ll be back with the Concerned Citizens Group. This library means a lot, especially to senior citizens.”