Thursday, September 15, 2005 | Supporters and officials overseeing the downtown library project remain optimistic that the citywide system’s planned flagship will go forward despite the departure of several key advocates from City Hall and virtually no progress in raising $27 million that was supposed to be raised by this month.
Until mid-summer, Dick Murphy was leading the charge to build a 380,000-square-foot hub for the city’s public library chain in downtown’s East Village. The former mayor resigned in July.
Now the city is without the elected leader whose legacy will be smudged by the city’s financial woes, which some say ultimately doomed the planned library he so often championed.
District 2, which includes the library’s future site, is no longer represented on the City Council. Former Councilman Michael Zucchet stepped down days after Murphy following a federal corruption conviction. The city administrator overseeing the project, former Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring, left the city on Sept. 2.
To date, the city has announced $3 million in private donations. Herring said in April that $30 million needed to be raised by September in order to move forward on the library.
“We would not feel comfortable recommending that we go forward unless a critical mass of the private fundraising was raised before the construction contract was entered into in September,” Herring said at the meeting.
But Mel Katz, chairman of the library commission, said a construction contract won’t be agreed to until 2006 because an updated cost estimate must be completed. The City Council will also need to approve the amount, collect bids and agree to a contract.
Since its approval by the City Council in 2002, the project’s cost has been pegged at $150 million.
As for raising the remaining $27 million by September, Katz and library foundation executive director Jim Bowers said that a number of philanthropists have expressed interest in donating, but are generally waiting for the new cost estimate before pledging a gift. At least one party has stated that they may want to be the naming donors, which would require a gift of between $25 million and $35 million, Katz said.
Library Director Anna Tatar and Deputy City Manager Elle Oppenheim, who supervise city libraries, said they did not have any information about how far along the project is, but referred information requests to Katz, a volunteer, and Bowers, an outside fundraiser.
Library commissioner Matthew Hervey, an attorney, pledged the first $1 million in January and The San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David Copley gave $2 million to the project in March.
Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment agency, has agreed to cover $80 million of the library’s tentative $150 million price tag.
A state grant for $20 million will also go toward building the library, but Herring said the state funds are contingent on completing the project by the end of 2008.
Richard Hall, the state’s library bond act manager, said that there’s nothing alarming about the city of San Diego’s delays or situation, however it will have to raise matching funds in order keep the grant. How the city attains the rest of the tab is its business, he said.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve received nothing officially from that jurisdiction that would tell us anything other than that they’re moving forward with that project,” Hall said. “We do expect them to work in a reasonably close timeframe, but there’s nothing in the act that shows a drop-dead date.”
Hall said he will continue to monitor the progress in San Diego.
San Diego County Taxpayers Association President Lisa Briggs said that the problems surrounding the city – which include federal and local probes into the city’s pension dealings and disclosure practices as well as a City Council shorthanded by Murphy’s resignation and the bribery convictions of Zucchet and Councilman Ralph Inzunza – have probably warded off potential donors.
“Pushing back the dates is just delaying the inevitable because they’re trying to push something that doesn’t have a chance,” Briggs said. “Right now, the downtown library does not make sense and the difficulty they’re having in fundraising proves just that.”
Even if backers for a new central library could raise the money for construction, city officials have not identified a way to fund the day-to-day operations and maintenance of a facility two-and-a-half times the size of the current downtown branch, Briggs said. Moreover, library hours and book purchases have been cut in the current fiscal year budget, she said.
Herring provided the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce an estimate of operating costs in June, projecting total personnel and non-personnel costs to amount to $9.2 million in today’s dollars, $2.4 million more than this year’s expenses to maintain operations at the facility. The former administrator assumed that the same number of employees could staff a facility much larger than the current hub.
The extra expense will be covered by revenue generated through the lease of space on two floors of the planned facility, parking charges for patrons who stay longer than two hours, and sales receipts from a café and book store that are on site, Herring said.
Mitch Mitchell, vice president of public policy at the chamber of commerce, said the project is a “wonderful vision and plan,” but that he is not satisfied with the city’s answers to his organization’s questions.
“Nobody will disagree that a new library downtown makes sense and is a necessity,” Mitchell said. “Obviously the majority of the focus is on the pension crisis and the budget crisis, so there is probably not as much attention being paid to the library plan.”
Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at