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Council stands pat: 4-3 vote leaves Carnegie building on the chopping block

Alan Brew, chairman of the Bemidji Heritage Preservation Commission, appeared before the City Council Tuesday evening as he asked councilors to reconsider their previous decision to plan for Library Park's future without the Carnegie Library. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

A majority of the Bemidji City Council on Tuesday voted to stand by its September decision to plan for a future Library Park that would not include the 102-year-old Carnegie Library, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Alan Brew, chairman of the city's Heritage Preservation Commission, had asked the council to revise its Sept. 12 motion so the HPC and other supporters could work to seek funds to renovate and restore the building.

If the council is on record as saying it supports the demolition or relocation of the building, no funding agency would consider offering its support, Brew said.

"That's one of the handicaps we face," he said.

The Downtown Development Authority also sent a letter to the council supporting the HPC's request.

But the future of the Carnegie got tangled up in discussions about consultants, fees and the planned redevelopment of Library Park and Paul Bunyan Park.

Ultimately, the motion from Councilor Jim Thompson to include the Carnegie Library in the park plan failed 4-3 as he and Councilors Rita Albrecht and Ron Johnson voted in favor; Mayor Dave Larson and Councilors Roger Hellquist, Greg Negard and Kevin Waldhausen were opposed.

"I like old things, old buildings as much as anybody does, but it comes down to what makes sense for the dollar, for the tax dollar," Negard said. "I can't support it. I would not vote to put one city tax dollar into it."

According to the 2009 Carnegie Library reuse study, the cost to renovate, upgrade and expand the building was estimated at more than $1 million. Brew tried to get the council to subtract from that the cost of demolition and restoration so the Heritage Preservation Commission could have a fundraising goal, but they never got far.

The city about 10 days ago sent out requests for proposals from consultants interested in leading the planning process for the planned redevelopment of Library Park and Paul Bunyan Park. Responses are due next week.

Public meetings are anticipated to start in February or March so the design would be complete by summer, in time for Legacy funds, said Marcia Larson, the city's parks and recreation director.

"I would have to say that we sent out the RFP to do planning, consulting," she said. "It would be nice to know what the amenities we want in the park. I think it's going to be challenging to design a park without this (Carnegie Library) decided."

About $740,000 in sales-tax funds is allocated for the waterfront renovations, she said. Construction is expected in 2013, which already is one year later than previously planned as it was delayed one year so the city could, first, revise its master parks plan.

That work, which was finished late last year, was what actually led to the council's September motion.

Since then, however, the HPC and numerous citizens have been working to "save the Carnegie." More than 500 signatures collected from around the country were gathered in support of the Carnegie in an October petition.

"Obviously, historic structures are important," Albrecht said. "Many people have told us they are important. There has been an outpouring of support from across the country to save this building."

Waldhausen said the hardest part of the motion he voted against was not knowing what the tax dollar cost would be. Hellquist noted, later, that most grants require a local match.

They both questioned whether Bemidji taxpayers would want to fund the restoration of the building.

Waldhausen said the Bemidji School District in November asked taxpayers to support higher taxes to fund the construction of a new elementary school.

"And it was overwhelmingly no," he said. He then asked if taxpayers would support higher taxes to fund the restoration of the Carnegie Library. "In looking at recent history, I don't believe they would."

Brew said the HPC would aim to raise all of the necessary funds for the preservation and restoration of the building. He also said there are some grants that do not require a local match.

"What I'm saying is I would like an opportunity to try," he said.

But councilors, in considering a possible timeline to give the HPC, worried that any delay would results in a delay of the planned renovations of the waterfront. Johnson suggested consultants could be asked to develop two plans, one with the Carnegie and one without.

Larson said she would believe that would lead to higher consultant fees and less money available for park construction.