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Monday, July 17, 2006 | When drawings were first released for a new main library downtown, with its three-story domed reading room and sprawling plaza, supporters showcased a space-age facility equipped with state-of-the-art technology. In the four years since then, a lack of philanthropy has put the project at a standstill. If the project stalls much longer, those plans might not look so futuristic after all.

A fundraising effort has been underway since the project passed through City Council as part of a massive library overhaul in 2002. It was always envisioned that philanthropists would be counted on to fund a large portion of the project – $50 million when the project was announced. But as project estimates have grown in the past few years, philanthropists have been counted on to cover an even larger share of the costs.

Today, fundraisers have only officially announced $3 million in pledges – $82 million short of what planners say they need to complete the $185 million main library. The project’s manager said the City Council might need to make a decision within six-to-eight months if the philanthropy drive doesn’t kick in.

Mel Katz, a board member on the San Diego Public Library Foundation, wouldn’t say exactly how much has been raised, but said funds are still being sought. The campaign has reached its “quiet stage,” he said.

“I think in the beginning, people were too optimistic on how much money could be raised in a short period of time,” Katz said. “Once we started looking at it, we realized that we’re much better off working behind the scenes and waiting until we can make a major announcement.”

Last year, fundraisers intended to raise $30 million out of the $50 million by last September. The project was estimated to be $149 million at the time. However, the September deadline passed, and fundraisers said that donors were awaiting a report with newer cost estimates before pledging.

The report, released in November, revised cost estimates to $185 million and forecasted that fundraising for the project could be completed entirely in 2007. That same report estimated that groundbreaking would begin this month.

Darren Greenhalgh, the downtown library’s project manager, said at least $60 million of the donation goal has to be raised to begin construction on the facility’s shell.

“The price just keeps going up the longer we wait,” Greenhalgh said.

He said there would eventually be concerns if money isn’t raised to move forward. Greenhalgh said six-to-eight months of work is left to be done on the library site at Eleventh and J streets.

After that, “no more work can be done until we begin construction,” he said. “At that point the council may or may not make a decision on the project.”

Supporters for a new main library maintain that some progress has been made; demolition at the project site occurred last month and the city is currently working to clear it for actual construction.

The Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, has pledged $80 million to the project and recently issued bonds – a portion of which are slated to go toward the library. A $20 million grant from the state helped garner initial support for the project.

“Once money is in place, then we can go forward to construction, but planning is still continuing,” said Arian Collins, spokesman for the city’s Library Department.

No new project completion date has been set. When city officials announced last month that CCDC was selling the bond package that included funds for the library, CCDC President Nancy Graham said she’d been told by library officials that private donors would be announced in the fall.

Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which has opposed the project, said the city should set a more definite date for completion.

The state grant given for the project expires after 2008, but officials say the city has some flexibility with the completion date. Richard Hall, a state library bond act manager, said cities just have to show that progress has been made. Jurisdictions make their own timeline and are allowed to request extensions. However, at some point Hall said the state will have to make an assessment on whether the project can go on.

“The time to construct will probably bring them past the 2008 deadline, but that can be extended and it is likely to be extended,” Hall said. “It’s an ongoing process; as long as the project is progressing we’ll continue to work with the jurisdiction.”

To some, even the feasibility of the project is dubious as construction costs continue to rise. A report last year estimated a 1-percent increase in costs per month past its July recommendation. When it was championed by former Mayor Dick Murphy, estimates for the project were at $149 million. Updated plans have deferred features envisioned in the original proposal, including a 350-seat auditorium.

But the delays have not hampered overall support in City Hall. Mayor Jerry Sanders continues to back to the project, although he has been adamant that the city’s general fund – the fund that covers its day-to-day operations – will remain off limits to the construction of the new main library.

“The mayor is still very much in support of the project,” Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman, said. “The city is willing to wait; we want to give the fundraising effort every chance to succeed.”

Sainz said any additional costs increases would have to come from private sources. Meanwhile, Katz said the foundation is working to raise money according to the latest estimates of $185 million and not for any additional costs due to delays.

The project comes at a time when the public library system has been experiencing cuts in the past few years resulting to reduced hours at some facilities. Public officials have said also they can staff the newer, larger library at current staff levels – eliminating any extra budget strain on a city in the midst of a financial crisis.

Those who pushed for the project said the operating and maintenance costs will be kept at a minimum since the new library will include self-service machines and other technology that allows for the same number of staffing.

“There are various ways of reducing costs, the new main library is designed differently and doesn’t need as much supervising sections,” Collins said.

However, a consultant working on the project has said that would require overworking the staff. The consultant also said that accurate predictions for staffing levels are impossible to predict unless there is a known number for how many visitors the facility would attract.

Councilwoman Donna Frye, the only member of the City Council who did not approve of the project, said the city should have higher priorities.

“[The project] doesn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Frye said. “We should be more concerned about keeping what we have opened rather than trying to have more.”

Last year’s report cited the city of Minneapolis’ plan to use the same staffing level with their new main public library. The Minneapolis library has since opened and according to officials there, security, building and grounds staff has been increased though the level of public service staff remains the same.

Lutar said she still doesn’t believe the project is feasible to maintain and operate according to the last estimates.

“In light of the city’s fiscal condition, the redevelopment and operating funds could be put to other uses,” Lutar said.

(Correction: The original version of this story said that fundraisers hoped to have their fundraising drive completed by last September. Rather, fundraisers only hoped to raise $30 million by that date in order to start construction. We regret the error.)

Please contact Marnette Federis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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