Library update

John Ramos

On Oct. 5, 2018, the Duluth Public Library board of directors emailed the Duluth City Council and Mayor Emily Larson a resolution that the board passed in September. In it, the board requested that the city “address aging library infrastructure that is becoming more expensive to maintain” by 

(1) conducting “a comprehensive assessment of capital investments that [are needed to] support library services”; and 

(2) looking at the possibility of including a new library or library branch in the planning that was underway for Essentia Health’s $800 million expansion. Because Essentia’s expansion would include a sizeable public component, the library board thought an opportunity might exist for the library.

It was just an idea, but their resolution got a little more attention than the board had anticipated. Chair Matt Rosendahl didn’t realize that emails sent to the full City Council are automatically forwarded to the media. He began receiving phone calls “within one minute” of sending the resolution to the city. “That was very surprising,” he told the board later. “I had to look at my email five times and think, ‘Did I send this to [KBJR News Director] Kevin Jacobson?’” A story on the board’s resolution ran in the Duluth News Tribune on Oct. 20.

Thus far, the idea of including the library with the Essentia project remains only an idea. When I contacted Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams via email and asked if the city had any formal response to the library board’s resolution, he replied: “The City appreciates the Library Board’s timely reminder that the need to renovate or replace the main library remains and we welcome their encouragement to look at all plausible opportunities to meet that need, including, but not limited to, the Essentia project. For lack of time, we have not yet had an opportunity to talk with Essentia about this possibility. The main library facility remains a priority for the City and we hope to be able to take up the issue again reasonably soon.”

Capital maintenance at the main library has been a concern for years. Built in 1980, the library received very little capital maintenance throughout its existence. Today, all its major systems—electrical, mechanical, HVAC—are in need of replacement. In 2015, Mayor Ness wanted to build a new library downtown, but when I published a series of articles showing that Ness had conspired with the consultants to slant their supposedly “objective” report in favor of a new library, the mayor put everything on hold and planning for a new library came to a screeching halt. Ness never brought the subject up again. Since Mayor Larson assumed office, she has said little about the library—she supports it in a general way, but she has not yet addressed any plans for its future. 

Of course, the capital maintenance needs of the library have only worsened. Everything that was too old in 2015 is three years older now. A study completed by the consultant TKDA in 2016 estimated that replacing the library’s critical systems and fully resetting the maintenance schedule for the building would cost $19 million—half what Mayor Ness had wanted for his new library, but still, not a small amount. Any project of this magnitude would almost certainly have to be financed through bonding. The city has been doing a good job of paying down its bonding debt in recent years. Could the springs of our budget tolerate another $20- or $25 million obligation?

Despite the uncertainty about the library’s future, the city is not ignoring the present building. “In the absence of a clear, imminent plan to do a significant renovation or a relocation, we proceed on a day-to-day basis with smaller projects to make the building work in its current form,” Filby Williams told me in July.

Among these projects is one scheduled to take place next year. It will create significant changes in library traffic patterns by moving the public computer lab from the first floor to the second. New restrooms will be installed where the computer lab is now.
Since they got rid of their Government Documents section a few years ago (everything’s online now), a large area on the second floor has been sitting virtually empty, populated only by a few lonely tables. Moving the computer lab there will allow for a bigger computer lab, illuminated with natural light—a big improvement over the cramped, windowless space it occupies now. The new bathrooms, centrally located and easily accessible on the main floor, will improve the library experience for everyone.

One reason for the changes is public safety. The library is not overwhelmed with public safety concerns, but Filby Williams told me that the city has seen “a gradual uptick in generally minor security/law enforcement issues” in and around the library over the last several years. In early 2018, a library staff member was involved in an altercation with a patron who was trying to do harm to other patrons. That incident spurred the city to think more seriously about the library’s layout, which led to the proposed changes.

“[It] was just kind of the proximal impetus for us to get police and library and facilities and our human rights officer together to [ask] how can we prevent and respond to these sorts of rare but concerning instances in a manner that fortifies, and does not undermine, our mission to have this … be a welcoming, inclusive space?” Filby Williams said.

One problem is that the library’s many distant, hidden corners make it easy for people to engage in socially-unacceptable activity unseen. The bathrooms on the top floor are particularly distant and hidden. Visiting them, after you light your torch and walk for a few minutes, you can often hear orcs and other things rustling around in the stacks, smacking their lips as they watch you pass. Moving the computer lab upstairs will change that: The bathrooms will no longer be distant and isolated, but adjacent to the busiest hub of activity in the library. Under the civilizing eye of society, the orcs and other things will run away (probably to the Depot) and nefarious activity will be much reduced.

The city has also hired a contract security officer to maintain a presence at the library for several hours a day. Filby Williams said the guard’s purpose is “to play kind of a supplementary role in the middle ground between a librarian’s scope of skill and responsibility and a police officer’s scope of skill and responsibility, so that neither are we asking librarians to do things that feel, and sometimes are, unsafe, nor are we drawing on the valuable time of police when a police officer is not strictly necessary.”

As for the board’s hope of being included in the Essentia project, that’s still very theoretical at this point. When I asked Chair Rosendahl about it at the board’s Oct. 23 meeting, he said, “As an advisory board to the city, we feel that with a large public-private project going on in and around our downtown, and this large capital need in and around our downtown, that we just encourage the city to do an investigation.”

“It’s just an exciting concept, is what we thought,” said Board Member Sue Hanke.
“We’ve decided to be a little noisier about the needs of this building, as the voice of the citizens,” said Rosendahl. “So here is, we think, an opportunity, but it’s up to the city to figure that out, if it’s a real opportunity.”

The Lakewalk vigilante

October saw another round of massive waves roll in and smash up the Lakewalk again, the third time it’s happened in a year. Early damage estimates added $18.4 million to the $9 million repair bill the city was already facing from the previous storms. Much of the Lakewalk’s armoring stone has been swept away, leaving the paths and boardwalks undercut and destroyed. Parts of the Lakewalk resemble a shell-battered war zone. It also happens to be an enormously popular public attraction that is beloved by locals and tourists alike. It has to be fixed, right? But what if these storms keep happening?

Well, nobody can answer that question today. Nobody expected this last round of waves to come in so soon after the first two, and nobody really expects a fourth round to come in now. Only time will tell.
To think that on Sept. 12, 2018, a month before the waves of doom roared in, everything had been looking up. Work was proceeding on the city’s application for federal assistance, and the city had begun to make repairs in June. People were starting to relax enough to focus on things beyond the immediate recovery. At the monthly meeting of the Parks Commission, Commissioner Dennis Isernhagen said that the Friends of the Lakewalk had conducted three surveys in recent years, and each time one of the top concerns to emerge was bikers who didn’t announce themselves. 

“It’s a safety issue,” said Commissioner Isernhagen. “I take walks in many Minneapolis and St. Paul parks, and that seems to be the standard protocol, that people will announce themselves.” He said that some survey respondents had suggested establishing a speed limit on the Lakewalk.
Commissioner Dudley Edmondson had a somewhat different view. “As a cyclist and commuter, I know that, certainly, announcing yourself is a huge deal, and I do it on a regular basis—my wife and I both commute on the Lakewalk from Lakeside---and, you know, I usually start with a ‘Good morning,’ and then I say, ‘Passing on your left’ just to get them ready, and then I pass. But I don’t think a speed limit is good, because, to me, I see the Lakewalk as a traffic thoroughfare that any and all traffic needs to move at the pace it needs to move at … So a speed limit is not good, but I think etiquette is certainly something that I think we all need to be reminded about.” 

Edmondson went on to explain how he, personally, taught lessons about etiquette. “A lot of times I will chase down cyclists on my bike and I will say, ‘Hey, you passed me, you passed all those people, but you didn’t tell anybody you were coming.’ And people look at me like I’m crazy. But I oftentimes will get after cyclists, and they’re surprised I can catch them, and catch up with them, and have a couple of words to say to them. And I just remind people that this is, again, a traffic thoroughfare. Walkers deserve to be there, cyclists deserve to be there, everybody has to use the thing respectfully, and just understand that this doesn’t belong to you, so be respectful of everybody on the trail.”

Now that Mother Nature has inconsiderately knocked the Lakewalk back into recovery mode, such policy discussions have returned to the back burner. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that if you’re ever passed by two swift blurs on the Lakewalk, it’s probably Commissioner Edmondson taking care of another irresponsible biker.

Scaia sentencing

One more chapter in the life and times of Chisholm City Councilor Kevin Scaia has come to a close. Convicted last July of groping a woman in a Chisholm bar, Scaia was sentenced on Oct. 29 to 30 days in jail and two years’ probation. Under the terms of his probation, he will be forbidden from consuming alcohol, visiting bars, possessing a firearm, or using the internet without supervision.

Scaia will remain a city councilor until his term ends at the end of the year. He did not advance past the most recent primary election.