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City library supporters, who would like to turn the old city auditorium into a new downtown library, say now is the time to make a decision on the project.

Pershing Center is the ideal location and the timing is right, said Herb Friedman, Lincoln attorney and president of the Lincoln Library Board of Trustees.

The 58-year-old auditorium, 226 Centennial Mall, is empty. The city, which now uses the Pinnacle Bank Arena, has closed Pershing and sold its contents.

Friedman said the board wants to start a community conversation about the need for a new downtown library.

“If this doesn’t move now, it won’t happen for a couple of decades.”

Friedman and Ed Tricker, a member of the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries, pitched a $55 million project with a presentation to the Lincoln Independent Business Association this week.

The money would be used for converting the Pershing block into the city’s main library and would include money to remodel some branch libraries, Friedman said.

The presentation features numerous other new city libraries across the Midwest demonstrating the broad use of 21st century libraries. 

The presentation also points out that a $55 million bond issue would cost the owner of a $157,000 home about $34 a year, or one half the cost of a ticket to a Husker football game.

Mayor Chris Beutler said he supports the concept of a new main library downtown but "funding this multi-million dollar project will be a challenge."

Beutler said he would support "a plan that ensures the highest and best use of the Pershing property, provides the greatest bang for the buck for Lincoln’s taxpayers and articulates a long-term vision for a key location along Centennial Mall."

Beutler said he remains open to redevelopment proposals for the property, "but any proposal must come with a solid financing plan."  

"From a practical standpoint, I believe some sort of public-private partnership offers the best opportunity to meet these objectives."

The library board is "interested in exploring potential neighbors or partners for a mixed-used project," said Pat Leach, library director.

Three years ago the library board proposed either converting Pershing to a library or building a new library on the block.

At the same time a private developer proposed combining a new city library with apartments and retail on that block. A third proposal was for student apartments.

Beutler rejected all three proposals in 2012, saying the two private proposals cost taxpayers too much money and he didn’t sense community support for the library project.

LIBA leaders have promoted selling Pershing Center to the private sector and putting it on the tax rolls, not retaining it for any city use.

But Friedman pointed out that the block has always been public, platted as a public block in 1896.

The library board sees no particular reason why the city should sell Pershing, he said. The city will have to practically give that land away and the library will have to buy land for a new library at retail, Friedman said.

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“No smart businessman would do that,” he said.

LIBA has taken no stand on the need for a new downtown library but does have strong opinions on selling the Pershing site to a private developer, said Coby Mach, LIBA president.

"The city owes it to taxpayers to capitalize on this unique location, to find a developer who has a vision for what Lincoln needs and can provide the greatest benefit the Pershing site has to offer," he said.

Mach also said he thinks many who voted for the new Pinnacle Bank Arena believed Pershing would be placed on the tax rolls.  

A 2003 study determined city needs had outgrown the downtown library, Bennett Martin at 14th and N streets, which is a couple blocks northwest of Pershing Center. A 2012 study concluded it would be smarter to renovate Pershing or build new on its site rather than renovate the Bennett Martin.

“It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig,” said Friedman about renovating Bennett Martin.

The library board thinks the Pershing block should be used for a library, he said.

The library board's 2012 proposed conversion of Pershing or putting in a new library on the block was expected to cost about $43 million with $10 million coming from donations and $33 million in tax funds.

Taking inflation into account, the cost to tear down Pershing and build new would be around $51.5 million for construction in 2018, Leach said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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