The Dakota County Board's vote to approve a construction bid and contract has cemented plans for a new, county-operated South St. Paul library to be located by the high school, ending a yearslong debate over the library's ideal location and who should run it.
The decision to proceed with the $11.3 million project wasn't without controversy, as the county board voted 4-2 Tuesday morning with one commissioner joining the meeting on Zoom but not able to vote.
"We're thrilled — it's been a long time in the works," said South St. Paul Mayor Jimmy Francis. "We are worth the investment and will be great stewards of the library."
The new building, to be built at the corner of Marie and Seventh avenues, will replace the existing Colonial-style library near City Hall, four blocks away. That library is owned and run by South St. Paul, making it one of just a few city-operated libraries in the metro and the only one in Dakota County.
Under the new arrangement, the county will own and operate the library.
"We should've done everything we could to save our existing library," said Lois Glewwe, a local historian who led a campaign to save and remodel the old building. "I just think it's a terrible travesty."
Glewwe said the effort is also too expensive, unnecessary and will create traffic jams when school ends each day. The new library won't have the small-town, personal feeling patrons liked, she said, adding that she believes the old building will eventually be torn down.
Francis said the city is committed to finding a new use for the building and has seen interest from the private sector and internally from the parks and recreation department.
Advocates for a new library have said it's needed because the existing building doesn't meet the community's needs. It's cramped and lacks the study and meeting rooms patrons want — and it requires major repairs.
Dakota County will fund the library's construction with American Rescue Plan money, officials said, though some county commissioners questioned both the increasing cost of the project and who should be paying for it.
"I'm just really disappointed with the way this thing has marched forward," said County Commissioner Liz Workman, adding that the county's commitment was initially $4 million.
Inflation, county officials said, contributed to the higher price. The county also hasn't received the funding officials hoped for from the Legislature since there has been no bonding bill this year.
But other commissioners touted its significance to the community, along with South St. Paul's contribution of land to the project.
The city will also donate its collection of library materials, be responsible for maintenance such as lawn care and fund a street reconstruction project near the new building.
"We've got the city stepping up in an unprecedented way to support this," said Commissioner Joe Atkins.
Commissioner Laurie Halverson noted that the current library isn't accessible to everyone and noted that "libraries are bigger than books."
Commissioner Mike Slavik, who spoke via Zoom, and Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg each raised the issue of the library's cost when patrons can visit nearby Wentworth Library in West St. Paul.
Both commissioners said Wentworth was a mile away, though Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord, who represents the district, said the libraries will be between 2 and 3 miles apart.
Jay Biedny, the county's capital projects manager, said the county will start construction on Sept. 29 after the county takes ownership of the city-donated land. The library is slated to open in spring 2024.
"It's wonderful to see it take its next big steps," he said.