CASPER, Wyo. — Marie Chorak visits the Natrona County Public Library a few times a week, but she doesn’t always come home with books.
Sometimes, it’s tough to find a parking spot. Other times, the children’s section is so crowded she and her son give up.
“You get to where it’s not even worth it,” she said. “You just grab what you grab and go.”
Those complaints aren’t new. When library supporters pushed for a new building four years ago, they argued the existing library lacked the space to adequately serve the community. Books went unread because they were inaccessible. Parking problems kept patrons away, they said.
Library officials at the time hoped to address the problem through a new $43.25 million building. At 96,000 square feet, it would have been roughly three times the size of the existing library.
Backers had little trouble placing a measure on the November 2008 ballot. But on Election Day, voters defeated the tax that would have funded the construction.
This November, voters will again be asked to temporarily raise the Natrona County sales tax to fund a new library in Casper’s Old Yellowstone District. But they will be deciding on a smaller, less expensive project than before. Library supporters say they learned from their defeat and made changes to prevent 2008 from repeating itself.
But critics say the proposal is still more than Natrona County needs.
Smaller and cheaper
While the current project would markedly increase the library’s size, it’s smaller in scope than the one that failed four years ago. This year’s ballot measure would raise $29.7 million – about a third less than the 2008 proposal. Designers also lopped off 13,000 square feet from the 2008 project.
In addition, the library foundation purchased land for the new building near the corner of Elm and Second streets.
“We’ve tried to take steps that address some of the concerns that we heard coming from the last election,” said John Masterson, a Casper attorney who serves on the foundation board.
The local economy is also doing better than it was in the fall of 2008, noted library Director Bill Nelson. Back then, the economic downturn left people leery of raising taxes and spending money on public projects.
While the national economy is still sluggish, things have improved closer to home, Nelson said.
The need for a new library is even greater now, he added. This summer, staff had to turn away people from children’s programs because of a lack of space.
Library patrons interviewed this week agreed with Nelson’s assessment. Ruth Garrett visits four times a week, to check out books, use the computers or just gather information.
Casper has outgrown the existing library, she said.
“This library is about out of space and about worn out,” she said. “They really do need to get in step with what Casper deserves.”
That’s exactly what the Citizens for the Library, a political action committee formed in support of the ballot measure, hopes to convince voters this fall. The group includes members of the Friends of the Library, the foundation and people who aren’t formally affiliated with the library, said Masterson, the committee’s chairman.
While the group has begun meeting, it hasn’t settled on a final campaign strategy. Masterson said he doesn’t yet know how much the committee will spend on the effort.
“I can’t even articulate for you what the campaign will look like, so I don’t know how much we will have available,” he said.
The funding will come from private sources, he added.
No group has formed yet to oppose the ballot measure, but critics, including former state legislator Dick Sadler, insist the project is too big and too expensive.
“I support the library,” he said. “But I think they are going overboard. And it is too costly.”
Sadler contends the project’s price tag is out of line with other library projects. He agrees the city needs a bigger library, but not one as large as what is now proposed.
Double the existing size would be enough, he said. That would make for a library of about 64,000 square feet – or roughly three quarters the size of the official project.
“We don’t need a palace,” Sadler said. “But we could sure use more space.”
Others doubt a new library is needed at all. The existing downtown Casper location, they say, is just fine for Natrona County’s needs. They also question whether building a new library is prudent, as electronic books become more popular and more people have access to the Internet.
Masterson, however, maintains that the library is more than a building that stores books. It’s also a public meeting place, with educational programs for both children and adults.
He hopes voters will ultimately view the new library as a community investment.
“Personally, I hope people see it as something that is here for the benefit of this community for decades and decades to come,” he said.