South St. Paul is one step closer to having a county-run library, a solution that would provide residents with a modern space but leave the city's nearly century-old library sitting empty.
The new branch would replace the existing library, which is city-owned and operated and dates to 1927. The city would retain ownership of the Colonial-style building at 3rd and Marie avenues — though some residents have raised concerns about the future of the historical building, saying they're worried it could one day be demolished.
In 2020, South St. Paul officials proposed joining the Dakota County Library system and offered the county a vacant site to build a more spacious library with the latest amenities. In early June, the County Board deemed the new site, blocks from the existing building, acceptable for further consideration and directed county staff to begin searching for a project designer.
"We need a face-lift, we need an improvement and we just can't do it on our own anymore," said South St. Paul Mayor Jimmy Francis.
Dakota County hasn't allocated money for the project, and has yet to finalize decisions about operations, timing, staff and collections. The county asked the state for $1 million toward design costs for the new library in this year's bonding bill. The Legislature has failed to pass a bonding bill, but lawmakers have suggested they could revisit it in the fall.
The county also added a request for about $4.7 million — half the total project cost of $9.4 million, which includes an additional $1.1 million toward net-zero construction — to a preliminary list of 2022 legislative priorities.
On Aug. 10, the County Board will vote to select an architect for the project. Construction could start in 2022, with a 2023 opening date — "but it's not a done deal," said Steven Mielke, Dakota County director of physical development.
"This has significance for the city," he said. "Moving from a city-owned library to being part of the county, that's not an easy thing to do."
South St. Paul's is among a handful of city-run libraries in the metro area. A possible merger with the county system has come up repeatedly over the years, but worries about losing the current building and its small-town feel stalled talks.
The existing building needs repairs, including a new roof and mechanical systems. It's cramped and lacks the resources of newer libraries, such as meeting rooms and up-to-date technology.
A Dakota County-led study completed this spring, which compared renovating the existing library to constructing a new library from scratch, found that building new would cost about $8.3 million for a 16,100-square-foot facility — a size comparable to other Dakota County libraries — while updating and adding to the older site would cost about $11.5 million.
The price discrepancy "effectively ended that discussion," said South St. Paul City Administrator Joel Hanson.
Kathy Halgren, director of the library and the city's library board, said board members had concerns about the cost of upgrading the existing building and believe a new library will meet library patrons' future needs.
The City Council can't hand over operations to the county without library board approval, Halgren said — the board voted in May to eventually turn the library over to the county and agreed with city officials on the future site.
Board members' feelings about the merger and new location range from excited to resigned to unsupportive, she said. "It's not like they're jumping up and down."
The move toward a new structure disappoints local historian Lois Glewwe, along with members of the "Save Our South St. Paul Library" Facebook group.
"We've been working for three years to stop this and nothing works," Glewwe said. "I love my library and I believe it has historic value."
Francis said city officials are "dedicated to keeping" the old library building, though its use would be uncertain. But Glewwe said she predicts she'll wake up one day to find it knocked down.
Glewwe also cited traffic issues with the new location, which is near South St. Paul Secondary school.
She said it's irresponsible for the county to build a new library in South St. Paul when its Wentworth Library in West St. Paul is five minutes from her house.
But Francis said the city, once known for its sprawling stockyards, can't afford annual funding, let alone updates, to the existing library. The library's 2020 budget was $824,000.
"We are still a city of a second class, economically depressed, due to the stockyards leaving," he said. "We still haven't got back to that level where we can afford a $900,000 library levy annually on our own."
The new location is ideal, he said, because it's walkable for downtown residents, close to transit and could host school programs, too.
Though local historians have asked the city to consider the nostalgia factor, the mayor said, "we really have to make decisions based in reality."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781