With the W. Dale Clark Library set to be demolished and relocated, the Omaha Public Library system is looking forward to a new central library branch at 72nd and Dodge streets. The Omaha City Council held a public hearing Tuesday on a $20 million agreement with Community Information Trust (CIT) to design and construct the new library.
CIT was formed by influential philanthropic group Heritage Services to operate Do Space, a nonprofit technology library aimed at closing the digital divide. According to the agreement, CIT intends to incorporate the Do Space building and its services with the new library, and turn over operation to OPL.
Heritage Services President Rachel Jacobson said the project will cost at least $140 million, of which the city would be obligated to cover only $20 million. Heritage would raise the rest of the money, as it has for numerous civic projects over the past 30 years. Jacobsen said they don’t have full pledges yet, but they don’t intend to break ground until 85% is raised, hopefully by next summer.
“A lot of the large foundations have said they’re gonna be interested; they’re very passionate about this project,” Jacobson said. “But until we get the approvals and the commitments … we’re not going to formally ask for pledges.”
Tom Trenolone, design director at HDR, presented the project design, which is publicly available online. The building at the southwest corner of 72nd and Dodge Streets will be immediately adjacent to an ORBT stop. A lower outdoor level will allow for car access for quick book drop offs, freeing up the main level for green space.
The interior will be designed so that future changes could be made to accommodate new technology, Trenolone said. The building would also incorporate an automatic storage and retrieval system, which reduces the space needed for collections. He said OPL would become the first public library in the United States to do so.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said the project is possible thanks to generous philanthropic support. She said the city’s funding is allocated from the Capital Improvement Plan for 2024 and 2025, and she will commit to increasing OPL’s allocation in the city budget this year for more staff, higher wages, and new materials for collections.
“Adding a learning destination to a commercial, residential, and entertainment revival underway at 72nd and Dodge will create an even greater potential for the true crossroads of our city,” Stothert said. “We can expand the technology offered at Do Space, and update our master plan for the entire library system.”
Some Omaha residents have raised concerns that the project gives too much influence to a private entity. In addition to overseeing construction, CIT also intends to merge with the OPL Foundation, a nonprofit which raises money for the library system. All of CIT’s board members also sit on Heritage Services’ board.
The vote on the agreement is scheduled for next week. If it is approved, the City Council would be able to later terminate the agreement by denying another step in the process, like the redevelopment agreement. It could also be terminated if Heritage is unable to raise enough money.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday to receive a monthly report from Douglas County Corrections Director Mike Myers. Myers reported that ten inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in June, which resulted in the closure of multiple housing units. He said they are working to reassess their COVID risk protocols.
The corrections continued to struggle with staffing this past month, Myers said. Thirteen officers and one sergeant left the department, and ten began the training academy this month. He said the department is about 60 officers below what is authorized, which is taking a toll on their daily operations.
The department spent nearly $100,000 more on overtime costs in June compared to May. Myers said longer hours lead officers to be less alert, which is a safety risk. Shutting down activities also lowers morale among both officers and inmates.
“Things are getting pretty challenging for our staff,” Myers said. “With an increasing frequency, we find ourselves having to shut down certain activities or certain functions because of staffing levels.”