by CHRIS ROGERS
This month is a make or break moment for Arcadia’s proposed new public library. After a referendum to build a new community center and middle school gym with $4 million from local taxpayers and a $12-million donation from the Wanek Foundation succeeded in April, local volunteers have been working on a second phase: fundraising $1.25 million to make a new public library part of the community center project, too. The fundraising campaign is making one last push to bring in serious donations before the week of May 20, when the Arcadia School District’s architects need to start drawing up final blueprints — with or without space for a public library — to prepare for groundbreaking this fall.
The current library is a historic, but small building that, like many of its neighbors, suffered flooding last summer. The school district’s conceptual plans for the community center include space for a public library that would be significantly larger than the existing library, with meeting rooms and more public computers. However, Arcadia School District Superintendent Louie Ferguson explained in March that if fundraising for the library fails, the school will simply delete the library from its plans and build the community center without it.
Last week, Arcadia City Administrator Bill Chang and fundraising campaign organizer Jason Lockington reported that, without the help of big donors, the fundraising campaign is unlikely to reach the new library’s $1.25-million estimated cost. Lockington works for Ashley Furniture and represented the Wanek Foundation during the campaign for the referendum; now he is helping fundraise for the library. “There are a few large donors, including my most critical one that I haven’t had any luck with, which is discouraging of course,” Lockington informed the City Council last Monday. Lockington said that the campaign needs small donations, but what it really needs is a big donor to make a big donation. He explained that the campaign committee will send out mailers, make phone calls, and make one last attempt to raise the money.
Meanwhile, city leaders are thinking about what might happen if there is a fundraising shortfall. “There has to be a decision made here,” Chang said in an interview. “If the donations don’t come in by May 20, we’re going to have a real discussion of where the [rest of the] financing is going to come from or if the library is going to be part of that project.” Essentially, the question is: will the plan for a new library be scrapped or will the city make up any funding shortfall, and if so, how?
The City Council went into closed session to discuss just that issue last Monday, Chang explained. The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law requires all meetings of government bodies to be open to the public, with a few, limited exceptions. As justification for the closure, the city cited an exception that allows city councils to meet in private to negotiate and bargain. This exception is most commonly used when governments are bargaining with a seller over the price for purchasing property. In an interview, Chang claimed the private meeting was also justified under different exceptions, personnel exceptions commonly used to negotiate union contracts or to discipline or fire a specific employee, because one of the options for funding the library campaign shortfall was rearranging staffing. “The shifting of operations, personnel matters, donations, building a public facility on school property — we believe that falls within the criteria here for a closed session,” he claimed. In its compliance guide, the Wisconsin Department of Justice advises that governments should only use that exception for “situations in which competitive or bargaining reasons leave a governmental body with no option other than to close the meeting.”
The council did not reach a final decision and will likely meet again in closed session on May 21 after hearing how the final fundraising push goes, Chang stated. However, he said the city leaders discussed a variety of funding options, from borrowing to using reserves. “Everything is on the table at this point,” Chang said, adding that it is far from the only expense the city is facing. “We’re kind of pinched between this project and the Army Corps’ [flood protection] project, which has been our priority from the start,” he explained. Asked if there was a real possibility that the council might decide to not make up the shortfall, Chang answered, “I guess I can’t say at this point.” If there is still a shortfall on May 21, the City Council will need to decide one way or the other.
In an interview, Lockington talked about the campaign reaching a threshold — some amount less than $1.25 million — that might make or break the project. “If we don’t meet that threshold, whatever that magic number is that the council and the library board decide determines the fate of this building, we basically won’t have a [new] library,” he explained. “If I were to put a number out there, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I’d imagine it’d have to be a pretty significant number for the city to justify contributing to this project,” he continued. Lockington described the fundraising campaign as, essentially, a referendum on building a new library, in which Arcadians were voting with their dollars. “The council has a very good grip of public sentiment and what that is. They understand that there has to be a really strong showing of support, financially, through private donations, in order for them to contribute to this. Because that strong showing of support will demonstrate a real legitimate desire to have a new facility within the community,” he added.
If the library project is scrapped, the fundraising committee will call everyone who has made pledges to the library and ask if they would still like to contribute them to the community center or take them back, Lockington explained. “The vast majority of people are interested in seeing the community center be successful with or without the library … This is great opportunity for the library, but this won’t be a total loss if it doesn’t happen,” he stated.
Pledges to the library campaign may be made by contacting campaign committee members or the school district office at 608-323-3315 or School District of Arcadia, 765 Raider Drive, Arcadia, Wis., 54612. The fundraising committee will hold meetings every Wednesday this month at 5 p.m. in room 219 at the Arcadia High School.