Garner leaders want to revisit downtown library with county

kjahner@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2014 

— Despite a nagging feeling that the project may be low on Wake County’s priority list, Garner’s leaders hope to renew efforts to push for a new downtown library – though there is uncertainty on the ideal site.

Town staff met late last week with Wake County’s interim County Manager Joe Durham. (The county recently hired Seminole County, Fla., County Manager Jim Hartmann for the permanent role; he will start in April.) They argued that the library would promote substantial mixed-use development in the area and provide far more value than the $600,000 renovation slated for the aging Southeast Regional Library. Garner Town Manager Hardin Watkins said that slated renovation figure could rise as high as $770,000.

At the work session the council discussed the best approach as staff recommended bringing a case to the county. In general, council members spoke of striking a balance between advocating for a cause and not coming off as overbearing or unreasonable.

“You don't have to browbeat them,” Kathy Behringer said. “But if you don’t stay in front of them they forget and assume you don't care.”

The library represents a key to the town’s downtown plan, which includes a bond – and ConAgra gift-funded recreation center. The hope is the new gyms can generate enough foot traffic – along with the Garner Performing Arts Center and Garner Baseball fields – to spur commercial investment and development. But the library would work wonders according to town planners, as would a potential transit stop if Wake County joined Durham and Orange counties in funding Triangle Transit’s commuter rail proposal.

“There’s not much more we can do to get (projected) 600,000 bodies (per year at the proposed library) walking through the door at a downtown facility. You can get a lot to a rec center, but not that high. You can get a lot to baseball, but not that high,” Watkins said.

John Hodges, the executive officer of the Garner Revitalization Association, said with enough foot traffic commercial development of downtown could include $35 million in private investment. He said developers have been expressing interest.

“One developer called it ‘the best transit-oriented development site in the region,’” Hodges said.

But the county – which is building 16 new schools while renovating many others in a $910 million construction bond, contemplating transit, awaiting a new manager and having elections facing about half of the commissioners – might not be as eager.

Behringer said it was worth trying but didn’t express optimism. Councilman Buck Kennedy said he thought chances might be better down the road and didn’t think the town had enough to sway the county commissioners.

“If I were sitting in their shoes, I’d say bring a better proposal than giving me $700,000. Bring me a better proposal than just bringing me the land,” Kennedy said. “It’s just one perspective, but we need to offer a better package. I’m not sure what that package would be.”

Hodges said proposals for the county could include consultants’ projection of $187,000 in property taxes from private investment in the area for the county per year, as well as the fact that the new library, built on town-provided land, would result in no new operational expenses.

Watkins said now would represent a good time to make another push to the county, since the police station designs (a renovated office building on the property next to the current library on Seventh Ave.) are nearing completion and bids out on finding an architect to design the rec center.

Further complicating planning, some on the council worry that the downtown plan of placing the library right next to the rec center on Main Street between Purvis and Montague streets might be too tight a fit. In particular Gra Singleton and Kennedy worry that parking could be crammed and question the need for both buildings to have Main Street frontage.

“You’ve never heard me say I like both on one site,” Kennedy said.

Singleton agreed, calling it “one man’s opinion” that the library should be on U.S. 70, with plenty of parking in between the rec center and library.

Hodges pointed out that the plan has long called for both on Main and tha,t with current plans, there would be about 500 parking places within a couple blocks of the site. Watkins also said others he’s shared the plans with said they make sense.

“I told (former county manager) David Cooke, ‘Tell me what you want.’ He said ‘No, your plan makes sense. You need commercial people with U.S. 70 frontage. We don’t need that visibility,’” Watkins said.

The town is in the process of requesting bids and choosing an architect for the recreation center, so if the town decided that either the library or the rec center would move, that decision would have to be made, likely before the town knows when a new library could be funded.

Watkins said the last time the town formally asked for a library was about 18 months ago at the County Commissioners’ retreat. He said Garner was among the first to present proposals, and possibly tipped their hand to their detriment.

“Looking back we may not have done it that way,” Watkins said. “Every city after asked for a library. I think that muddied the waters.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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