New branch library approved

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City council votes unanimously in favour of funding to start in 2016

There was a brief moment during city council’s meeting on Thursday night, where library director Peter Bailey simply shook his hands in an expression of relief and smiled.

Council had just voted unanimously to set aside funding for a new branch library for the next three years. Planning for the building will start in 2016.

“We are not at the end of the road but we can see it from here,” Bailey later said outside council chambers, where he shook hands with about 30 other library members, staff and board members who had come out in support of the branch idea.

“But we have a commitment, we can actually plan, we can actually talk to the architects.”

The decision made by council that night had been years in the making.

The St. Albert Public Library has been at capacity for more than 15 years, and has long pleaded with city council to fund an expansion (ideally, a 23,000-square foot secondary branch in the north of St. Albert).

But it wasn’t until this year that it really amped up public support.

In a passionate speech, Coun. Tim Osborne reminded council that it had received more than 200 emails, letters and phone calls in the last few months from people supporting the expansion.

Many had shared personal stories of how the library had helped them through its many programs and resources, he said.

He also listed at least five studies that had taken place supporting the expansion, from the 1999 city master plan to the most recent 2013 library feasibility study.

There had even been community telephone surveys where residents said they would pay extra tax dollars for more library space, calling it “the most important space” in the city, he said.

“We studied this,” he said. “I think we need to get on with getting the library built.”

Osborne also stressed that council should not wait for lands to become available but look at possible options now.

Earlier, administration had told him that the Badger lands, an 80-acre future development site north of Villeneuve Road, would take another five to 10 years before it would become available.

Council had considered the site for a library branch but councillors now agreed that they should be looking elsewhere for the expansion.

Osborne added that the current economic situation lends itself to building a library, with construction costs down and more people using library resources to look for jobs.

“So I ask my colleagues on council, no more delays, no more excuses, let’s get a new library built,” he said. “The people have spoken, we need to listen to them.”

His speech was followed by loud applause from the public gallery.

Council then voted to allocate $100,000 in its 2016 budget towards the planning of the branch. It also voted on a preliminary amount of $2 million for the 2017 budget and another $15 million in 2018.

While the dollar amount for those two years is not set in stone, it has opened the door for the planning phase. The city will now look into a feasibility study, stakeholder consultations and a community engagement process.

It will also start identifying potential sites for the library branch, and look at possible partnerships with other community projects.

While all councillors voted in favour of the motion, some stressed the need for public engagement on this project.

Coun. Sheena Hughes said that people may have said they would support higher taxes for an expansion but building an entire new branch will be more expensive.

The city should choose the space carefully and perhaps look at sites it already owns, such as the former Oakmont school site, she said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse suggested the city partner with the library for fundraising this project.

He also addressed the people in the public gallery after the vote and thanked them for their engagement and leadership in rallying for community support.

“I think you should be proud of yourselves,” he said. “When the residents were saying, ‘yes, I take a branch,’ that’s pretty telling.”

Council also voted in favour of $62,000 in the 2016 budget for a mobile library van.

Starting next year, the van will offer access to books, library programs, resources and electronic files to people around the community, from senior homes to daycares.

Hughes ended up voting against funding the van. She said if the library put some computers into boxes or delivered books it would accomplish the same goal.

“St. Albert isn’t as spread out as Strathcona County or Edmonton,” she said. “I just couldn’t see how we absolutely needed this.”

Library board chair Charmaine Brooks later told the Gazette the van is a way to bring services to people who may not be able to access the library otherwise.

She also called it a “stopgap measure” to the library’s space needs until the new branch is built.

Asked about council’s decision to vote in favour of the branch, she said she looks forward to working with the city and its residents on what they want to see in the branch.

People in the north of St. Albert have access to housing and commercial developments but there aren’t many city services there, she said.

“I want kids to bike to the library and people to walk there and it’s just not possible if you are up there,” she said. “It’s such a relief, it’s so great, I am just thrilled.”

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