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Plans for a new downtown library took a big leap forward Monday night after the City Council picked a preferred location, accepted a $2 million donation and told city staff to start working on a land deal.

The current Parmly Billings Library is in an old hardware warehouse ill-suited as a library, but it sits in a prime downtown spot on North Broadway near Sixth Avenue North.

A library committee spent months reviewing possible locations and decided that the current location was the best place to keep the library. Then in October, an anonymous donor stepped forward and offered $2 million if the city agreed to build a new library with “architectural significance.”

Around that same time, city officials learned that the rest of the block to the north of the library was vacant, and that its owner, Billings Clinic, would consider trading that land to the city in exchange for some street closures closer to the main clinic campus.

It seemed like plans for a new library were taking shape, but council approval was needed before city staffers could push forward with the plans.

The council unanimously gave that support Monday night, but some on the council urged library backers to prepare a plan that the public will swallow, since it will be asked to vote on a bond measure in 2011 or 2012.

The bond measure would fund the bulk of the project, which is expected to cost between $13 million and $14 million. The private Parmly Billings Library Foundation hopes to raise $5 million toward the project, with the $2 million as the first major donation.

Voters could be asked to approve $8 million to $12 million in bonds. Council members said the bond measure should be reasonable, since its failure could block any progress on a new library for a decade.

“Are we going to package and sell the Mercedes to a community that's willing to fund a Ford Taurus?” Councilman Ed Ulledalen said.

City staffers and library backers will now start working on a design for the new library, as well as land trades with Billings Clinic and Stockman Bank, the only other landowner who owns land that the library could use. Library Director Bill Cochran said Stockman Bank head Bill Coffee told him that the bank would do an equal trade for land, even though the bank's land is worth more than the city's land.

Council members said they wanted to give city staff flexibility to come up with the best plans, but also said that specific details will become more important as the project progresses.

“We've got to get this right,” Councilman Vince Ruegamer said. “I want to hear how are we going to get this done and who is going to pay for it and who is going to vote for it.”

In other business, the council approved an amendment to its transportation plan to allow for more funding for the Bench Boulevard connector project. The council also had a lengthy discussion about the Inner Belt Loop, a proposed road connecting the Heights with the West End.

City engineers want to delay construction of the road from spring 2011 to spring 2013. That has angered Heights residents and the two council members from the Heights. One of the council members, Angela Cimmino, asked the council to hold another discussion on the project at the Dec. 6 council work session.

“It is a communitywide project,” Cimmino said. “It is not just a Heights project.”

Contact Matt Hagengruber at mhagengruber@billings or 657-1261.

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Contact Matt Hagengruber at or 657-1261.