Duluth takes first steps toward library renovation with $150,000 investment

The actual project could cost around $40 million.

Duluth Public Library
Downtown Duluth Public Library.
File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The Duluth City Council set the wheels in motion for a major renovation of the downtown public library Monday night, when they approved a pair of contracts to advance the project, to the tune of nearly $300,000, with the Duluth Library Foundation offering to pick up half the tab. A trio of library resolutions passed 6-0 Monday night.

As envisioned, the reconceived library will house a local Workforce Center in addition to its traditional offerings.

The city will pay NEOO Partners Inc. $45,350 to lead outreach efforts to gather input from community members and staff that will inform the design of the future library.

Another $214,658 contract with MSR Design should cover the cost of drawing up an architectural predesign of the facility. The project has an ambitious timeline, with the predesign to be completed by October, if Duluth hopes to have a shot at state bond funding for the project in 2024.

Not everyone is on board with the project yet though.


“We had constituents email us regarding concerns the project is taking away from the core of what a library exists to do. Could you respond to that constituent concern?” 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf asked city administration at a Thursday evening agenda session meeting.

Elena Foshay, Duluth’s director of workforce development responded: “I think what’s happening is that the purpose of what a library is evolving in real time, and it’s evolving in response to what the public is asking, based on who’s showing up to use the library and what they’re needing from their time there.”

“I think this project gives us an opportunity to innovate and meet the community where it’s at. It’s not going to do away with traditional library services. That’s still going to be a very important part of it. It’s going to add some additional resources and services, things that the public wants out of their library,” she said.

“We’re sort of on the cutting edge of what’s becoming a national trend,” Foshay said, pointing to the natural synergies between the missions of libraries and workforce centers.

“We are for sure not the first ones to come up with this idea,” she said, noting that St. Paul and Ramsey County are looking at similar projects.

Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of parks, properties and libraries, said: “Prior councils have already actually made a decision by permanently eliminating 20% of our library workforce to substantially downsize what we actually have the professionals to deliver on this site. And we do not, as a result of those cuts, have enough people to safely and effectively operate a building of this sprawling character.”

“In fact, one of the many drivers of the patron and employee safety issues that have had is the extent to which we have a skeleton crew that is spread, too often in isolation and out-of-view nooks and crannies. So, we are right-sizing this building to a staff that has already been downsized. I think that train left the station 15 years ago,” Filby Williams said.

He explained that space demands of a modern library also are less intense than in the days when it was expected to keep back copies of every periodical published.


Duluth library file
Sue Wilmes browses books at the downtown Duluth Public Library in February 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

“We feel we’re on a path where we can produce an outcome that’s going to be an enormous net positive for both the workforce center and the library,” Filby Williams said.

Foshay said every effort is being made “to make sure we have a truly equity-driven and comprehensive engagement component of this effort.”

“We wanted to make sure we had that capacity and thoughtfulness built in, to make sure that we get a diverse range of voices participating in the process,” she said. “I think the input they gather will inform the predesign process and ultimately the architectural design, but it also will give us and library staff really important feedback we can use now, starting today, on how to improve our services and how to adapt to what the community needs,” Foshay said.

At large City Councilor Therese Tomanek said, "This is the first step in a really important community process that we're using to help advance input as to what will be the renovations to our downtown library."

At large Councilor Azrin Awal recalled when her family first immigrated to Minnesota, that libraries played a large role in their lives. "The library was one place we would go almost every other evening. It was one of the only places we felt welcomed and supported," she said, referring to libraries as a community "building block."

If Duluth is successful in its request for 2024 bond funding, Filby Williams expects it will cover about half the estimated $40 million cost of the project.

Randorf expressed concern about the sticker shock residents may experience with a project of such scale and asked staff to describe some of the other likely funding mechanisms besides the state bonding bill.

Filby Williams said, “As background, we have a now-43-year-old asset with most of its original systems still in place. It is beyond its lifespan, and we have a non-discretionary obligation to preserve and renew this city asset.”


“We are very conscious of the importance to our citizens and to you that we exhaust every opportunity to find a way to renew this asset that places the minimum possible burden on our local taxpayers. And the approach we are taking is designed, in part, to maximize our ability to access outside dollars to pay for the renewal of this local asset,” he said, noting that federal pandemic relief funding may be available.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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