Some of the biggest points of contention around a controversial plan to potentially sell the north building of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s downtown campus didn’t come up during a meeting between Hamilton County Commissioners and Public Library officials today.
Commission President Todd Portune last week called the meeting after what he termed “disturbing” revelations that the Library’s Board of Trustees voted on the plan — part of a larger facilities revamp first reported here last year — without seeking public input first.
That has caused consternation from critics like the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, who point out potential conflicts of interest in the deal and the financial hit the library would take if it sold the building, built in 1997 for more than $39 million, at an appraised value of $8.5 million. They oppose potential privatization of the building, which they say should remain available for public use.
Critics of the potential sale have organized a campaign called "Our Library, Our Decision." They've protested at an Aug. 8 board of trustees meeting and held an Aug. 22 town hall meeting at the downtown branch of the Library.
Library Director Kim Fender and Board of Trustees Chair Allen Zaring stressed that the library hasn’t made any decisions about selling the building, but that something has to change about the way in which it is used by the library.
“It's very simple,” Zaring said. “The building is too large. It's twice as large as it needs to be."
Those opposed to the plan who gathered in the small conference room at the county administration building for the meeting murmured disapproval at that assertion, with one person in attendance saying, “that’s bullshit.”
Fender says the four library departments occupying the north building, including its popular Children’s Learning Center and Maker Space, utilize only about a quarter of the building. She said that some of the other 40 library branches have a much higher usage rate per square foot but have much smaller and out-of-date facilities. Fender said the uptick in building and activity in Over-the-Rhine and downtown hasn’t increased circulation at the downtown campus.
The library is waiting for a report from the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation — which it contracted to help it explore a sale of the building to private developers — before making its decision. That report should come out in December, Fender says.
The library needs to consider how to use its limited resources as it launches a new facilities plan that will address maintenance issues and take some circulation and administration tasks out of the downtown campus, officials say. The board of trustees approved that plan in June — without community engagement efforts — after a committee of the board suggested it last October.
Portune admonished Zaring and Fender for failing to hold public input sessions on the facilities plan.
"We would never make decisions of this magnitude without major public input,” he said. “That's the minimum we can expect from out appointees."
Portune made similar comments at last week's County Commission meeting, hinting that he might seek new appointments for the library board. Zaring's appointment ends at the end of this month.
But commissioners Portune, Denise Driehaus and Chris Monzel stopped short of delving into complaints about the plan from critics, including questions around some close ties between Library board members, 3CDC and the commercial real estate company that did the initial appraisal of the building.
William Moran, the secretary of the Library’s Board of Trustees, also works for 3CDC, and his son, Michael Moran, is a vice president at CBRE here in Cincinnati. Earlier this year, the younger Moran touted the development potential for the north building of the library in an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Portune did point out early in the meeting that appraisals from the Hamilton County Auditor placed the value of the property at $15 million — significantly higher than CBRE’s appraisal.
Library director Fender says the library is in the process of getting another appraisal from other commercial real estate appraisers. She said that appraisal should be completed by the end of the month.
Zaring and Fender told commissioners that they don’t have a plan yet for when they’ll schedule public input on the north building’s fate but should have something scheduled by early next year.
“I think we could plan for a January hearing,” Zaring said.
Following the meeting, a group critical of the plan gathered around library officials as they got up to leave, asking questions about the deal. The dozen or so library deal critics also expressed frustration with commissioners for not being more aggressive in their questioning.
Portune sought to reassure critics — many of whom plan to attend the Library's next board of trustees meeting Oct. 10 — that there would be more opportunity to express opposition to a possible sale of the building.
"Nothing is final,” he said, “nor will it be without robust public input."