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Rod Confer

Rod Confer

Recently, a letter from the president of Lincoln Independent Business Association (LIBA) (“Letter misleads on LIBA stance,” July 21) raised some issues that should be addressed concerning the new central city library project.

First, let me clarify the request for proposals (RFP) process for developing the Pershing site occurred in 2012, while I was Lincoln city attorney. Mayor Chris Beutler rejected three proposals that were submitted in response to a city RFP (“Beutler rejects all three Pershing Center proposals,” Nov. 20, 2012).

A proposal from the Library Board put forward a plan to use the site for a new central library. Two other submissions came from private developers.

One wanted to buy the Pershing site for $10 million to build a new library combined with retail or office space, conditioned on the city committing to a 30-year lease of the library at $2.5 million a year, totaling $75 million.

The second developer proposed building student housing and retail space. It required the city to spend approximately $2 million to demolish Pershing, after which the developer would buy the land for $1.5 million. The city would also have to commit to considerable tax-increment financing (TIF) for the developer’s benefit.

The Library Board proposal did not involve any purchase. The first proposal would have obligated the city to pay a net $65 million, and the second would have cost Lincoln $500,000 and a sizable TIF obligation to give up its ownership. None of the rejected proposals in 2012 can be characterized as a “legitimate offer to purchase” the Pershing site.

The Library Board continues to view Pershing as its preferred location for a new library. The July 21 letter says, “the Library Board does not expect to purchase the Pershing site from the city. Essentially, they want it free.” The reason the board wouldn’t purchase Pershing from the city is that the board is part of city government.

Lincoln City Libraries is a city department, and Library Board members are volunteers selected by the City Council to oversee this government function. The city doesn’t need to buy Pershing from itself to use it for a city purpose. That’s what city property is for.

All major capital projects appear on the city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), a planning tool to keep the city aware of upcoming financial needs. In 2006, the cost of building a new central library to replace Bennett Martin first appeared on the CIP. Total cost was estimated at $47,482,400, with bonds the proposed source of financing.

This estimate remained constant until 2013, although suggested funding sources changed. From 2014 to 2016, cost was approximated at $42 million, but, by 2017, information compiled by the Library Board and Library Foundation caused the estimate to increase to $50 million, with $42 million financed by bonds.

Estimated cost has stayed between $42 million and $50 million for more than a decade that the new library has appeared in the CIP, although suggested funding sources varied. Even so, the CIP remains only an approximation for city planning, not a definitive requirement for bond financing.

Once a site is selected and plans for the new library are drawn, financing requirements will be known. Lincoln voters will then have final say on the project in a ballot question on approving a bond issue for a new central library.

National studies of similar projects suggest that a new library in downtown Lincoln could create significant economic benefits and would be an attraction for many thinking about relocating here. If the new library were built on the Pershing site, it could potentially use only half the block, leaving the remaining half available for other development.

The city administration, including the Library Board, has invited private concerns’ cooperation in developing the Pershing Center location or other site chosen for the library. Private development in conjunction with library construction would make TIF available to the project, potentially reducing some library costs while benefiting the private development. Business near the new library will profit from increased activity and significant foot traffic, making those locations prime commercial property.

These are good reasons for LIBA and other community business to get behind the new central library project, not oppose it. Those of us working toward this goal urge and enthusiastically welcome their support and participation.

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Rod Confer, a former Lincoln city attorney, is a trustee for the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries and a member of the Library Board of Trustees Central Library Committee.

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