Next week, as the Waunakee area celebrates the opening of the new public library, it will mark the end of a nearly 15-year process that hit several road bumps along the way.
This chapter in Waunakee’s history involved nearly 500 Waunakee area residents and those hired to work on the project, all who helped see the project to fruition.
But according to one library board and village board member, the long timeline may have benefited the project overall.
“The time it took was a benefit to the library,” said Village Trustee Gary Herzberg. “It gave village board members a better understanding of the library and the needs.”
Over time, the village board came to a consensus that its current facility was no longer adequate for the growing community, and expanding the existing South Street building and parking was not an option.
In 2007, a site committee formed to recommend a location for the new library.
They visited a number of locations, said Village President Chris Zellner, and narrowed them down to four – the Waunakee Alloy site on N. Madison Street, the Main and N. Madison Street site then owned by the village, the Ganser property at Woodland Drive and Simon Crestway, and the Breunig property at Division and Main streets.
After the village board rejected Waunakee Alloy’s $1.7 million offer to purchase that site, that location came off the table. The purchase price was high, and site remediation costs were.
In 2008, as the Great Recession put an economic stranglehold on the nation, the village board decided to delay the library project. Village board members had at one time considered a November 2008 referendum, but that date came and went, according to a story that appeared in the Tribune in November of that year.
In 2007, Stone House Development had approached the village about redeveloping the Madison and Main Street site and incorporating a library in the project, but the village board delayed that to study other options. Those plans fizzled out as the recession took hold.
Later, in 2010, another study was done of the Madison and Main Street site.
Other needed projects
Over the ensuing years, the library was always listed as an unfunded capital project to complete at some point, but the community had other, more pressing projects.
“The Village Center had just come in,” Zellner said, adding that the Main Street reconstruction, the new EMS, Police Station and Fire Station expansion were needed.
“Figuring out how we could put all those pieces together was a challenge,” Zellner said. “The library was the last of those pieces.”
Herzberg added that it was frustrating as updates were needed to the police, EMS and fire stations.
“Every year, one of those would jump in,” he said. “In the end, I think it worked out best. With the library, we were trying to keep it in the minds of the village board and keep them thinking about it, and trying to keep the library board from going crazy.”
Jean Elvekrog, who also serves on the library board and the Friends of the Waunakee Public Library, added that trustees understood that first, the village’s public safety facility needs had to be met.
The Alloy site
In 2014, the village board was considering an agreement with a developer to build senior citizen multi-family housing at the Waunakee Alloy site and agreed to pursue a $150,000 site assessment grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, with the developer matching clean-up costs.
“As we started down the path with Alloy, it was a different situation because of the contaminants there,” Zellner said.
By the end of 2014, it became clear that the village board intended to pursue the site, as they directed staff to negotiate a purchase agreement and a site investigation. Staff was working with At Home Assisted Living, the developer seeking senior citizen housing there. Eventually, the developer decided on a different location in Kilkenny Farms.
Village Administrator Todd Schmidt said he was confident the library would be completed.
“Being bullish on a library project, it’s just good government,” he said.
He and other village staff worked with Alloy owner’s attorney, and as they received permission to explore the building, they began to understand the scope of its condition, Schmidt said.
“That made it clear wasn’t a simple project; it would require collaboration. Those sorts of issues made it clear that the notion of private redevelopment was more unlikely,” Schmidt added.
Only through government intervention could the site be remediated for reuse, he said.
In early 2015, the extent of the site contamination became clear: discovered were a toxic mix of mercury and PCBs. Schmidt revealed to the village board that its engineering consultants, Ayers and Associates, were unable to find a private vendor to take the drums containing the contaminants, so the federal Environmental Protection Agency would need to be called.
“It was complicated, dealing with the entities involved,” Zellner remembered.
Still, library board members began making plans, and Geoff Vine, who served as the village’s construction representative, put forth a timeline showing construction beginning in the spring of 2017 with an opening in May of 2018.
In 2015, a crew from EPA disposed of approximately a gallon of mercury and all of the foundry sands containing mercury.
At the end of 2015, the Waunakee Library Board moved forward with a conceptual design for the new facility, along with a feasibility study to determine the potential for fundraising. The village board unanimously approved $26,000 then for architectural services and $20,000 for the fundraising feasibility study.
But meanwhile, the EPA was negotiating with the owners of the Alloy property to recoup the cost.
Another major consideration among village board members was the impact of the project on its debt capacity. The village policy limits the amount of debt to half of the state’s limit.
During budget discussions in September 2015, Dave Ferris, Waunakee’s finance director at the time, warned that the estimated $15.3 million in borrowing to construct a library in 2017 would put Waunakee’s debt at 52 percent of the state’s limit.
“It’s amazing to me that we thought we were going to bump up to the 50 percent. I think we only got to 42 percent,” Zellner said. “It’s a testament to our growth. If we don’t have new growth, it’s going to be a tax burden to the people.”
The capital campaign
At the end of 2016, Vine presented to the board a scenario indicating that approximately $15 million would be needed for the new library construction and site, and that a capital campaign could raise between $1.5 million and $1.7 million.
“We needed to prove to the village board that we had the support and we could get the monetary support,” Elvekrog remembered. “People did ask, ‘How can we help?’ ‘How much do you need?’”
In six months, the campaign raised $1.5 million pledged or donated.
“Now we have up to $1.65 million and counting,” Elvekrog said.
Both Herzberg and Elvekrog say that the funds raised helped further the process.
“It validated that the support is out there because the library board did so much work prior in getting approval,” Herzberg added.
Schmidt said he was not surprised by the community’s support, noting that Village Center, and the clean-up of that site was embraced.
One large decision on the village board’s part was whether to put the building project to a referendum.
“What took [former village president] John [Laubmeier] a long while was the decision not to put it to a referendum,” Herzberg said.
Unlike other building projects, this one would replace an existing facility, Herzberg added.
Zellner said he felt a strong feeling from the board shifting away from a referendum as the financials came into place.
The pieces fall in place
In November of 2016, the Tribune reported that all of the pieces had fallen into place for the Alloy site. Village board members worked with the Department of Justice to clear a lien against the property resulting from the EPA cleanup.
Through collaboration with the county treasurer’s office, the EPA, the Department of justice and the state Wisconsin Economic Development Commission, a path toward the library seemed to open up.
Five years of unpaid property taxes allowed the county to take possession of the property and the village to acquire it from the county for the taxes owed.
Finally, in April 2017, the village took possession of the new library site. The village had negotiated a reimbursement to the EPA, with a settlement of $310,354. The library board began working with OPN Architects, who was to finalize the design by the end of 2017 with construction in 2018 and the opening in 2019.
“Out of all of this, I have more respect and appreciation for all of those levels of government than I had before. All the organizations and agencies stepped up and were willing to collaborate and were more helpful than anything else,” Schmidt noted.
Vine contributed his building expertise and provided invaluable guidance along with way.
“I don’t know if we could have had a better person with his background in construction,” Zellner said.
The final costs
While final construction costs for the projects are not in, the village’s borrowing came in at less than anticipated. The net project cost is $11,340,973, with the village needing to borrow up the gross cost of $14,555,973. With the funds pledged, and $1,390,000 already received, the total amount borrowed for the project is closer to $13 million, according to Renee Meinholz, finance director.
“It is still true that some of the revenues will be coming on over the next few years, and as they do, the village will be able to pay down some of the debt early,” Meinholz said.
The final product
Village officials seem pleased with the outcome, a new public facility in a prime location, just north of Main Street on North Madison Street.
“I’m very happy with the location,” Zellner said. “I think we’ve taken over an area that was a hidden gem and was an ugly site and will be one of the beautiful sites in the village.”
Paths connecting the library to surrounding neighborhoods and the building itself will connect residents, he added.
“We’ve gone down a long path to get to this point,” Zellner said.
Elvekrog agreed, saying the site is what it was meant to be.
“It’s going to be stunning,” she added.