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'Transparency has just been backwards:' City council still wants answers about library project

Posted at 5:54 AM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 16:25:00-05

Last week, the Omaha Public Library's Board of Trustees postponed a vote on a new downtown library—a project some are still wanting more answers about.

Councilmember Vinny Palermo said that the city council has not had any formal meetings about the new library plans.

"That’s the most bizarre part," Palermo said. "We know at this level of government when decisions come to us to make. The transparency has just been backwards on this whole entire project.”

Palermo was outspoken about a resolution that came before the city council on Tuesday that would have given the Noddle Development Company $390,000 to manage the move from the relocation of the downtown library branch.

The resolution was postponed by the council.

The problem? A new downtown branch has not officially been voted on yet by the city council or the Omaha Public Library Board of Trustees.

Palermo compared this to approving someone to roof a building that has not been bought yet.

He said not having answers for constituents has been frustrating.

“It’s disappointing when I have to tell people the answer to their question is 'I don’t know,' " Palermo said. "They expect me to have the answer, and we certainly should at this level of government.”

Mike Kennedy, the board of trustees president, confirmed that there has not been a formal briefing with city council on the project. But he said his door is open to any council member or member of the public with questions.

In regards to the resolution that was postponed on Tuesday, Kennedy said who will facilitate the move is not something the board of trustees is involved in.

“We’re not part of that approval process," Kennedy said. "That’s between the city council and the mayor.”

The Board of Trustees will be voting on the actual move from the existing downtown location, formally known as the W. Dale Clark branch, to a building at 1401 Jones St.

If approved, the new branch will require a $3 million renovation. The building will be leased for $465,000 a year for 10 years, with an option to opt out of the lease at the five-year mark.

Kennedy said he’s hoping this will be the permanent home for the branch, but they want to keep their options open.

“It’s going to be our downtown branch until it isn’t," Kennedy said. "And we want to build it so it could be a hundred-year branch, but if it’s not a great fit, the mayor has an escape clause for us.”

Palermo said he knows there are limited spaces for where the library would work, but he isn't sold yet on the new location, especially since there hasn't been much information shared about it.

“People are energized in their public spaces, and we have to make sure that people have a way to get to the library," Palermo said. "I don’t know if 14th and Jones currently provides that access that we necessarily need for everybody.”

According to the Metro Transit bus map, the 13th/ L St. route runs by 13th and Jones and 14th and Jackson. Unlike the W. Dale Clark location, the ORBT line does not stop at the new location and is about five blocks away.

When asked why the downtown branch was not being built where the W. Dale Clark branch currently sits, Kennedy said they don't need a whole block for the replacement downtown branch.

If the plans are approved, the downtown branch will no longer be the location for administration, circulation and central distribution.

That instead will be at 84th and Frederick in the former Shopko building. That building will be leased for $405,000 a year for at least 10 years, after a $500,000 renovation.

This building will hold administrative staff, backhouse operations and some collections, but will not operate as public facility.

Emily Getzschman, marketing manager for Omaha Public Library, said plans are still being developed to create a main or central branch.

"The hope is that a new central library will be built as recommended in the OPL facilities master plan somewhere along Dodge St. between 72nd & 90th," Getzschman said. "The OPL administrative staff would eventually be absorbed into a new central/main library and vacate the leased site at 84th & Frederick."

Kennedy said the board of trustees itself is still working out final details, which is why the vote was postponed last week.

“We’re doing our due diligence; that's our responsibility," Kennedy said. "We’re not negative to the project, but we got to make sure we see all the moving parts, because once we start moving, that move's a go.”

A new vote is scheduled for Tuesday at the W. Dale Clark Library at 5 p.m. and is open to the public. Kennedy said the board is getting information every day about the project and feels they will be ready to vote.

If it is approved by the OPL Board of Trustees, then it will be up to the city council to make the final decision.

Palermo is hoping they too will have more information to work with.

“I’m very optimistic that working together and hopefully being briefed here in the near future before we take the next vote, that we can move forward and have a plan and a library that we all deserve for the city of Omaha," Palermo said.

A public hearing will be held on the project at the next city council meeting on Jan. 25. The meeting starts at 2 p.m. in the city council chambers at 1819 Farnam St.

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