City calls timeout on plans to renovate or replace downtown Duluth library

Duluth Mayor Don Ness on Thursday signaled for a timeout on the city's plan to build a new downtown public library. Ness, who had supported a referendum on the nearly $35 million library project in November, said it's now clear that city resident...

Duluth Public Library
The Duluth Public Library on Superior Street, seen in November 2014. (Clint Austin /
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Duluth Mayor Don Ness on Thursday signaled for a timeout on the city’s plan to build a new downtown public library.

Ness, who had supported a referendum on the nearly $35 million library project in November, said it’s now clear that city residents need more time to learn about the issue and make informed decisions.

While the mayor said he had hoped to have the issue settled before he leaves office at year’s end, he said Thursday that “it’s much more important that the process be done well.”

“We are going to take a step back to take more time to engage the public,” Ness said at a news conference in the now 35-year-old downtown library’s second floor.

Ness said he supports a new building to accommodate new demands of libraries for the next 30 years. But he said he’s noticed “a hesitancy to commit” among the public he’s talked to.


City officials instead are hoping to engage the public over the summer and fall and leave any decision on a new library to the next mayor and next City Council, in 2016 or even beyond.

While city and library officials have been mulling the facility’s future for several years, it’s only been since last fall that proposals have generated much public discussion. In November, the city released four options proposed by consultants for renovating or replacing the existing library, located at 520 W. Superior St. That was followed by an open-house meeting in December.

In February, a citizens’ steering committee recommended the facility be replaced at an estimated total cost of as much as $34.7 million. And in his final State of the City address in March, Ness proposed the idea of building a new library on an entirely new site, on the 100 block of East Superior Street.

Jane Brissett, president of the Duluth Public Library Board, said Thursday that the board is on record supporting a new building - but that the board also agrees that the timeout is needed.

Library and city officials say the existing library, designed and built before computers were widely used in libraries, is out of date for the services being demanded by the public. Moreover, the building needs millions of dollars of mechanical upgrades if it’s going to be used going forward.

“We’re in a building that's working against us,” said Carla Powers, library manager.

Ness made it clear that reconfiguring the existing building remains an option, but only if the cost provides a viable facility for the next 30 years.

A recent evaluation of the building noted a number of shortcomings in the current downtown library, including major mechanical systems in need of replacement and a highly inefficient design that leads to about $75,000 in energy waste each year.


Ness said he wants the public discourse to help answer five major questions, including where the library should be located; what services it should provide going forward; what role do branch libraries play; cost and financing of construction; and renovation priorities if the library stays put.

Chuck Horton, an announced candidate for Duluth mayor, said he’s been campaigning against a new library.

“I’m hugely against spending $35 million on a new library that the city doesn’t need, at least not until after the streets are fixed,” Horton said, saying the city should first look at fixing the existing library building to avoid “wasteful spending.”

Horton also proposed the idea of possibly leasing space for the library in the new Maurices headquarters building under construction in downtown Duluth, and then selling the existing downtown library property to create an endowment fund for the city’s library system.

City Councilor Emily Larson, the other announced mayoral candidate, said she thinks “it’s a good idea to take a pause at this point.”

Larson said there’s broad agreement that the existing library needs to change, physically and in services offered, but there’s not yet a consensus on how to do that.

“Providing more ways for people to have input on this, and more time for people to make a good decision, is really a great idea,” Larson said. “Either way, whether we build new or rebuild what we have, it’s going to be a lot of money. So we want to make sure we do it right.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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