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Gary library changes will begin next month

5th Ave. view. | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media

5th Ave. view. | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 19, 2012 10:57AM



GARY — Members of the Gary Public Library board had two choices for the future of the Main Library branch on 220 W. 5th Ave.: Board up the building and add it to a long list of eyesores in the city or make new use of the building.

The board voted 4-2 to transform the building into the South Shore Museum and Cultural Center effective in January.

Gary-based Form+Funktion unveiled the new design for the modernist building at a recent meeting. The new look will keep many of the structure’s modernist touches, with wide open spaces punctuated by free standing exhibits, a cyber cafe and book store, and even a small theater with audio booths allowing patrons to record their own histories.

“We’re in the 21st century so how we experience history and art and culture is changing,” said architect and Gary native Rosalyn Mitchell. “You always want to respect the past but you have to embrace the future”

The cultural center will retain the Indiana Room, an impressive collection of relics and records on Gary’s past, board officials said, but the building will take on a decidedly different look.

Along with landscaping designs and a rooftop garden, the southern exterior on 5th Avenue, the main entrance, will feature silver, copper, pewter and gold colored plates to represent the city’s diversity, Mitchell said.

“What we wanted to do was reflect diversity and welcoming of all people, a melting pot,” Mitchell explained.

The computer room will be transformed into a cyber cafe with a bookstore and coffee shop with warm, welcoming colors opening up to the reception area. Small and large exhibit areas will be built into the structure, as well.

Exhibits may range from a look at the growth of Michael Jackson and the Jackson family to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, a native of northern Indiana, to steel mills and lake shores.

The entire renovation should be completed by June, with the library gradually phasing out its circulation function, said board president Tony Walker, but even getting to a positive vote on the project had its challenges.

Facing an operating budget of less than $3 million, down from $6.3 million just three years ago, the board decided it cannot continue to operate the Main Library and the other branches on plummeting tax revenue.

The changes will be paid for with existing revenue and new money possibly raised by a library foundation and other sources.

A full circulation desk and traditional library require more staffing — the biggest chunk of the operating budget — than the cultural center will, Walker said.

“A full-service library requires substantially more staff than even with a non-circulating library,” he said. “Even with the archives in the cultural center, we anticipate substantially reduced operating costs in the personnel line item.”

Politics also played a part in the challenges. The library board, made of appointees selected by the mayor, the city and county council and the Gary school board, has seen significant changes in the past two years, and the system also has a new director.

With the new makeup of the board came new alliances and voting patterns. Two members who once were often in the voting majority, Sadie Sheffield and Paula Nalls, now make up a vocal voting minority.

Walker shied away from talk of board politics and pointed to what he called a bigger picture in the cultural center’s development.

“The main motivator of this (center) is, with the recent turnover change in government coming up, several members have just gotten bullish on the future of Gary,” he said. “We believe the city is on the way back, and we should take responsibility, as community leaders, for leading the way to investing in this city.”



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