COLUMBUS — A survey of Columbus voters shows there are both positives and challenges as supporters of the proposed library/cultural arts center look for ways to make the project more appealing for the public.
The survey conducted in early July by Lincoln-based Research Associates included 300 randomly selected registered voters within the city limits who were contacted by both cellphone and landline. Respondents fell fairly evenly across age and income ranges.
One of the biggest positives, according to Columbus Public Library Director Drew Brookhart, is the results show most people believe libraries remain relevant, despite advances in technology, and feel cultural arts programs are important. Those figures were 60 percent and 74 percent, respectively, in the survey.
“That was good news,” Brookhart said.
He was also encouraged by the answers to questions regarding some of the specifics for the project.
A majority of those surveyed (72 percent) support the facility’s proposed location on the former Gene Steffy Ford property along 14th Street between 23rd and 24th avenues, 71 percent like the building’s look based on conceptual drawings and 67 percent were happy about the improved parking and access it would offer.
The results got a bit cloudier when voters were asked about the interior space.
Although 54 percent of respondents agreed more space is needed at the library for community meetings, workshops, classes and performances, 55 percent answered a separate question by agreeing that the current library space is adequate.
The plan rejected by voters in April called for a roughly 45,000-square-foot library/cultural arts center that includes a more visible art gallery, makerspace, additional room to expand the library collection and 300-seat auditorium that could be used for performances, meetings, classes and programming.
Brookhart said the auditorium, which he described as a “multiuse space,” must be addressed since 46 percent of those surveyed said Columbus doesn’t need another auditorium.
“We need to relook at that space,” he said, adding that the design may need to be altered to match the public’s viewpoint.
The current auditorium design includes retractable seating, allowing the space to be opened up or divided into three smaller areas. The stage also doubles as meeting space.
“The room was designed to do a lot of different things,” Brookhart said.
“It’s a lot different than the auditorium at the former high school or the new high school,” he added.
Another challenge is getting people to the polls to vote on the bond issue.
Columbus residents voted 1,768 to 1,517 in April against issuing up to $8.5 million in bonds to pay for the public portion of the approximately $16 million project. That’s a voter turnout rate of just 25 percent.
Eighteen percent of those surveyed in July said they didn’t vote in the bond election, with 60 percent of those who didn’t vote noting that they would have supported the project.
“Low voter turnout really hurt us,” said Brookhart, who also referenced a “misunderstanding” about the project’s financing.
Forty-five percent of survey respondents thought the project would move forward regardless of how April’s vote went, and fewer than half of those polled knew Columbus residents already voted in May 2016 to extend the local half-cent sales tax that would be used to repay the bonds for the library/cultural arts center.
The plan is to cover at least half the construction costs with private donations, grants and library foundation money.
Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said they “generally support” the library project, with 40 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided.
The overall cost, a belief that libraries are obsolete and feeling that the project is not a high priority for Columbus were the top-three reasons given for opposition. A majority of survey respondents (63 percent) believe a new library/cultural arts center would increase operating expenses, although Brookhart has previously said that’s not likely in a more-efficient building.
Just 31 percent of those surveyed had used the library in the past month, with another 29 percent utilizing library services in the past year.
City officials recently decided to push back a potential second vote to issue bonds for the library/cultural arts center until November 2020, a presidential election year that would surely increase voter turnout.
The proposed schedule gives library officials time to gather public input on the project, continue raising money and make any necessary design changes.
Brookhart said he’s comfortable with that timeline.
“I think it’s very important that we have 100 percent support from elected officials. I think that’s key to the success of this project,” he said. “Beyond that, I don’t really have a set time frame in my mind other than when people will support it. I don’t want to put something together and bring it back to the voters and have it be rejected again.
“If that’s 2020, great. If that’s not 2020, that’s fine, too.”
The library director said a steering committee will study the survey results before scheduling public meetings to discuss how the project should proceed.
“Obviously there’s work to do on gaining support for this project at a variety of levels,” he said.
An online version of the library survey is available through August at columbusne.us/library.
The private fundraising effort has generated $5.3 million for the library/cultural arts center so far, and Brookhart isn’t concerned that money will go away.
“I don’t think those donors and grant makers will see this as a less important project,” he said. “We just need to get the public support.”
In the meantime, the city has $250,000 budgeted for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 to repair plumbing issues and replace at least a portion of the roof at the current library building, located at 2504 14th St.