Library to reopen in Lake Elmo, county says

One might assume that Paul Ryberg, current president of the non-profit group Friends of Lake Elmo Library, could relax a little since Aug. 2, when the Washington County Board approved the lease agreement allowing a county branch library to reopen in Lake Elmo after over two years of temporary closure.

But the recently appointed county Library Board member has remained quite busy, manning a booth at the Washington County Fair in an attempt to spread the word that, through the efforts of the city, the county and his group, the collection of books and materials currently in storage should once again have a home as early as November of this year.

“One of the things that I felt, even before we lost the library, was that we weren’t doing a real good job of letting people know that we had one,” Ryberg said via cell phone during a break at the fair. “Right now, I’m telling anybody who’s interested that we’re going to have a library and to watch for the party.”

That celebration is likely to be at least three months away, as a reopening is not anticipated before mid-November. That’s when the 90-day contract for reconstruction that current owners Jack and Gisela Lee have on the property at 3479 Lake Elmo Ave. will have expired.

Nevertheless, the recent County Board approval was an indisputably large step toward a goal that Ryberg’s group has tried to see achieved since the former Lake Elmo library branch closed its doors in June 2003 due to severe and longstanding flooding issues. That building, since renovated for other purposes, stands just down the street from the library’s anticipated new home: a former restaurant called the Gathering Garden Café (which the Lee’s closed in January).

According to Ryberg, that location is as much a motivator for celebration as the return of the library itself. With more square footage (about 2,600 as opposed to the original site’s 2,000), on-street parking and a prime location across from the Lake Elmo Inn and just north of the post office in the downtown Old Village area, it comes as no surprise that the Friends group and the city have had their eye on the Gathering Garden building since late February.

Closing the deal

The new location’s attributes, as well as the testimony of several Lake Elmo residents and city officials at a County Board meeting on July 26, were enough to persuade county commissioners to grant the terms of a lease agreement on the property.

Those terms were outlined for the board members by County Engineer Don Theisen on Aug. 2 and they include an estimated project cost of $90,000 and a five-year lease with the option to renew annually for an additional five years.

The city, having pledged long ago to assist the search for a library effort financially, donated $30,000 toward that end, which the County accepted on Aug. 2 as well.

According to Theisen’s presentation, the new monthly rent for the County would be $2,700 (an increase of more than $1,500 from the previous building’s) in addition to $1,731 per month needed to pay off the renovation costs (totaling $60,000 for the County).

Despite the cost hike, County officials seemed to agree that the move was a good one for a community expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades. County Administrator Jim Schug said the Library Board had a “commitment to retaining smaller (library) branches” and commended Library Director Pat Conley for leading that effort.

However, along those lines, Commissioner Gary Kriesel asked if a Lake Elmo branch would truly be filling a regional need or would only benefit the city.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of comments from other communities desiring libraries in their (cities),” Kriesel said. “I’m concerned about the precedent.”

But Conley, who had floated ideas in the last year ranging from a library “kiosk” to a children’s-only library in Lake Elmo, assured the commissioners that there was a sufficient demand for the facility and acknowledged its history as the County’s first operating branch.

“We have a long-standing link with Lake Elmo,” Conley said.

For Ryberg, Lake Elmo’s situation was markedly different than neighboring cities currently without branches.

“Yes, there are other communities that want to have a library,” he said. “But what Lake Elmo was asking for was not to have a new library created, but just to have back the library that we’ve always had.”

In regards to the future, however, the new Library Board member spoke from a broader perspective.

“We really do need to make a needs-assessment for the whole county,” Ryberg said. “When you look out 20, 25 years ... we’re going to need more libraries. Do we want to have a few large libraries or a mix of little libraries? I think it’s a good idea to be talking about those things.”

Name change?

County board members agreed with that statement and Chairperson Myra Peterson emphasized looking at land use and density for library placement. Another point she raised, however, may see some opposition from the Friends group and potentially the city.

“I hope we would, at some point, remove the community names from community libraries,” Peterson said. Certain county branches like the Wildwood branch in Mahtomedi or the Stafford Library in Woodbury are examples of branches currently without community identification.

Although Ryberg expressed his preference that such a change not be made, Deputy Library Director Carla Prakash indicated that a renaming was likely, though not imminent.

“We haven’t made any plans about what we might change the name to,” Prakash said. “We’ll have to put our thinking caps on.”

Another potentially sticky issue between the County and the city has apparently been resolved with the promise of a reopening. Council members and city staff had been hinting for months at the perceived injustice that Lake Elmo residents had continued to pay the same amount of taxes for a library that was no longer operable in their city, and Johnston had indicated ordering an eventual investigation into the matter.

But now, with the Gathering Garden site secured (and with higher rent and renovation fees than the County was previously paying), the taxing concern seems to be a dead issue, according to City Administrator Martin Rafferty.

“It will be a wonderful addition to our downtown again to have this library reopened,” Rafferty said. “I imagine the utilization (of the services) will be even greater now.”

Family-friendly

According to Prakash, those services, though far from being ironed out yet, will be family-focused, with many features for children in particular. Other features, like the number of Internet workstations, will depend on how much funding can be acquired.

“All along we’ve been talking about Lake Elmo being a family and children’s library,” Prakash said. “It’s definitely going to be what we see as a pick-up and drop-off location.”

Prakash herself has been spending time handing out information at a County Fair booth recently and has noticed the growing interest in the Lake Elmo branch’s reopening. Ryberg hopes that interest will produce a new president for the Friends group as he intends to officially step down at the group’s Aug. 12 meeting (he is also currently running for a spot on the District 834 School Board as well).

Though he may not get the chance to relax any time soon, Ryberg was glad his and others’ efforts have not been in vain.

“One of the things that has been true since the very beginning is that everybody has been in favor of having a library,” he said. “There was always something wrong with this or that, but underneath it all, there was a community interest. ... The trick is making it all work and it took us a little while to do it.”

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