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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Competence and the Madison Central Library
The first deal fell through; now it's time to move on
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Dave Cieslewicz.
Dave Cieslewicz.

Last week, former Isthmus editor Marc Eisen took me to task - along with other city officials and virtually the entire Madison business community - for just about every building that didn't get built going back a couple of decades (see Opinion column, "A Loss of Competence at City Hall," 4/2/10).

Marc's unhappy because the Central Library has had a change of direction, and the Edgewater might actually happen with the help of a city tax increment financing loan he doesn't like.

Isthmus has already been good enough to give me space to lay out my position on the Edgewater (see "Edgewater Project Deserves City Support," 2/18/10). Now I'd like to explain why I think we should move ahead on a brand-new Central Library on the current site.

A new Central Library has been on the civic agenda for more than a decade. When I took office, the only sign of progress toward that goal was a rendering of a new building that looked like a Soviet-era bomb factory.

During my first years in office, my focus was on investing in branch libraries. Then, in the middle of a deep recession, I took on the Central Library because we can get historically good construction prices and the jobs are badly needed now.

We asked for proposals, and the Fiore Co. was picked. Fiore pledged to develop a new library on a site it owns on West Washington Avenue. Then it would buy our current library, tear it down and put a new building there, perhaps a hotel.

Because of that additional development on the current site, Fiore's project looked like a great deal for the city. A hotel could bring in room and property tax revenue, making the net cost of the whole project less than building a new library on the current site.

So far, so good. But there was a catch: Fiore insisted that the total cost of the new library be $38.5 million, while the city's consultant said the project could be done for only $35.7 million. I split the difference and put $37 million in my budget, and Fiore agreed it would work with us to see if we could get the total cost to that amount.

Last fall, after the budget passed, the city and Fiore got down to detailed negotiations. We talked for months and tried different options and approaches, but we just couldn't bridge the gap, ending up about a million dollars apart on what Fiore wanted for its site.

But what really ended the deal was that Fiore told us it would no longer buy and redevelop the current building, as proposed in its original plan. We had counted on $4 million for our building, so that left us with a total gap of about $5 million on the project. Moreover, the property and room tax revenues we had counted on to make the whole project work were now only a distant dream.

This isn't about who's right or wrong (or competent). It's a real estate deal that just didn't work out. And now it's time to move on.

We have a moment in history right now when we can build a great new Central Library on its current site that can be a center of learning and civic engagement for decades. The money is in the budget, construction prices are still low, and workers still need the jobs.

That's why I'm pushing hard for a new building at our current site. If we go back to square one, it will take at least a year and perhaps two just to get back to where we are today. And then we'll have to fight the budget battle again, over a project that will certainly cost more.

On the current site, we can get a beautiful new building for about the same cost to taxpayers but with more space. Total costs for the new building are around $220 per square foot compared to about $360 for the Fiore proposal.

Our new building will be as green as any in Madison because we'll be reusing energy-intensive floor plates and columns from the current building. And the rebuilt library will be more efficient and less costly because we'll have three large floors to oversee rather than six smaller ones. Finally, because the city already owns the site, we can get this done by 2012 compared to 2014 for the Fiore project.

Competent leaders are flexible enough to find ways to get things done even when the first attempt doesn't work out. I think our city government, business community and other civic institutions are filled with people just like that.

Dave Cieslewicz is mayor of Madison.

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