Bemidji City Council: Carnegie decision possible this week
Alan Brew stood behind Bemidji's Carnegie Library, gazing up at the three now-covered windows that overlook Lake Bemidji below.
"It's a beautiful view of the lake," he said, noting the city's Sanford Center would easily be visible on the horizon, especially during winter, when leaves are absent from the trees bordering the lake.
Brew, the chairman of the city's Heritage Preservation Commission, has for months been working to get the Bemidji City Council to reconsider its position on the Carnegie, a 102-year-old building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The council last fall voted to plan for a future Library Park that would not include the Carnegie. It confirmed that position in January.
But a new plan introduced last week might sway councilors to allow Carnegie supporters time to raise funds to preserve the building.
The council last week tabled consideration of a proposal that would convert the Carnegie into a television studio for the city's public and government access television channels. The issue now is on the council's Monday night agenda.
Upstream TV, Bemidji's public access television station, has proposed to move its studio from the basement of Brigid's Cross into the Carnegie and share studio space, technology and infrastructure needs with the city's government access station, which plans to expand.
"There has to be a public presence there," said Brew, commending the proposal.
Ironically, Brew, one of the building's most vocal advocates, is unable to attend Monday's meeting.
"This is Mike's and Lew's baby now," he said, referencing Mike Bredon, Upstream TV's executive director, and Lewis Crenshaw, who presented a financial strategy last week detailing grants that could cover preservation costs.
Andrew Carnegie, according to the National Park Service, gave away $350 million, nearly 90 percent of his fortune accumulated through railroad and steel industries. He funded the construction of 1,679 libraries between 1886 and 1919 with $40 million.
Bemidji's Carnegie Library was built in 1910, sitting atop a hill above Lake Bemidji.
"This building is typical of the public institution buildings built in the first third of the last century," said Brew, an archaeologist. "They weren't just libraries or schools. They were temples, reflecting their community values, their commitment to having public access to reading materials."
There were 66 libraries built in the state between 1902 and 1918, all pictured and detailed in the book, "Carnegie Libraries of Minnesota," written by Kevin Clemens.
Carnegie, Brew said, championed the creation of public libraries in an age when they were believed to be the responsibility of churches and colleges, only available to the rich.
"Carnegie's idea was to make reading available to those in rural environments, to small towns," he said, stating that, in short, preservation of Bemidji's Carnegie "would be a way of saying the community cares something about itself."
Upstream TV's proposal
Upstream TV officially launched in January, after more than two years of working with the city to secure the public access channel.
Bredon, its executive director, has said Upstream TV, or UTV, has been averaging a growth of 24 members a month. Assuming that continues, it would have 310 members by January 2013.
Some members join, at a cost of $25, to simply support the effort and not actually create content for the station, which airs on Channel 18. Bredon said there has been an average growth of 11 studio-using members a month, which if it continues, would mean the number of users would outgrow the available studio space now located below Brigid's.
A move to the Carnegie, he told the council last week, would accomplish several goals, including combining the efforts of public and government access in a shared space.
It is a move that not only makes sense, said Councilor Ron Johnson, who has advocated on behalf of government access, but also is a goal of the city's Public Affairs Commission.
Moving into the Carnegie would provide more room for expansion and infrastructure needs for long-term storage servers, and the location would be highly visible and open to the public, Bredon said.
"As Bemidji moves into the future, let us continue to work together as we always have and embrace our memories and our heritage," he said.
The council did not take a vote last week, instead opting to table the matter until Monday, when it meets at 7 p.m. at City Hall. It requested Upstream TV provide a business plan for review, as a few councilors pointed out that the organization still is in its infancy.
The council then will consider allowing Upstream TV and Carnegie supporters to work through October to try to raise the necessary funds to preserve the Carnegie and convert it into a television studio.
A phased plan
The target dollar figure for fundraising is not exactly known, but, for now, supporters are using a working figure of $1 million, based off of council figures and those included in the 2008 Carnegie reuse study.
Those numbers are questionable.
John Chattin, city manager, said a local construction company said it would cost $100,000 for demolition, removal of debris and restoration of the site.
Yet the number quoted in the reuse study for such actions was more than $500,000.
Since projected demolition costs seem high, Carnegie supporters believe estimates to preserve and renovate the building are likely high as well.
Preservation supporters' first move, Bredon said, would be hiring an architect to conduct a condition assessment of the building.
If the project moves forward, he said, the overall work at the Carnegie would be done in stages, beginning with $100,000 to stabilize the building's structure.
The rest of the work - such as relocating the entrance to the east side of the building, in Library Park - would be done in phases.
Councilors cited several concerns with the plan, including Upstream TV's age. Greg Negard asked whether Bredon himself would be here in Bemidji in two years.
"I love this town and I'm not going anywhere. That's the bottom line," Bredon replied. "My heart is so tied to UTV that I don't see how I could separate myself from it."
Johnson and Councilor Rita Albrecht said they don't believe the proposal should be tied to one person or even one organization.
It really is about providing good community access, Johnson said.
When other councilors asked whether Upstream TV would pay market-rate rent to occupy the building, Albrecht disagreed with that, too, pointing out that the city now doesn't charge the current Carnegie occupiers market rate - they pay the utility costs and $1 rent a year - nor does the city charge market-rate rent to other nonprofit city building-dwellers, such as Bethel Lutheran Church and the Beltrami County Historical Society.
"I don't think that's the purpose that we necessarily want for that building," Albrecht said. "What we really want is to have public access television, government access television, that is truly accessible and expanded."
Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, who agrees both with the partnering of public and government access and their expansion plans, questioned whether the Carnegie truly was the best place for the television studio or if the plan was just a roundabout way of saving the building.
"From a business standpoint, if there was no Carnegie Library, would a building like that make sense businesswise?" he said.
Bredon said you could take the studio and put it in an old church or office complex, but that would be doing the public a disservice.
"To have it there, at the waterfront, to have it received where the public congregates, I think, makes perfect sense," he said.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for some councilors is the potential impact that the proposal could have on planning for the Lake Bemidji waterfront.
It had been expected that the design planning for Library Park and Paul Bunyan Park would be underway by now - a kickoff meeting planned for last week was canceled, said to be postponed awaiting council direction - and construction on the park would be begin next year.
Some believe that if the council gives Carnegie supporters until October to raise funds, planning for the waterfront would be delayed at least that long, delaying the project by at least one year. Others disagree, saying they believe the two efforts can be done concurrently.