Are Libraries Worth It?

(This article is one of a series on issues relating to a new library/community resource center for the Lyons area. A vote to fund the Lyons Regional Library District is set for Nov. 4.)

Among questions asked about a new Lyons library/community resource center are these:

  • How much will it cost?
  • Can we afford it?
  • Are libraries really worth the money?

This article answers those questions and focuses on the economics of a new library/community resource center. For more details, see www.theheartoflyons.org.

First, how much will a new “library” cost?

That depends on what features a new “library” includes. Most new “libraries” include community center features, as is envisioned in Lyons. As post-flood community gatherings showed (consistent with pre-flood public input), Lyons has a dire shortage of adequate meeting spaces. Lyons has almost no public computer access, with only one computer in the current library’s cramped space. A new facility would have expanded computer resources, including free access and training for seniors and low-income families.

The current library has no after-school gathering space for teens, and only a small amount of children’s program space. There is no art exhibit space, or performance space. A new facility would be designed to include such things.

So what would all that cost? New libraries with community center features in similar-sized Colorado towns have cost from $2.1 to $3.0 million, varying in size from 4,600 to 7,000 square feet. Annual operating costs are $250,000 – $300,000.

A new Lyons facility would likely fall in the upper part of those ranges, given inflation and the features area residents have said they want. There’s no way around it: quality facilities and services do cost money.

“You get what you pay for” is apt, both positively and negatively. Right now, Lyons spends about $100,000 a year on its library, with little for building upkeep or improvement – as the Depot building’s poor condition reflects. Other communities with new library/resource centers (Nederland, Dolores and Mancos, for example) consider their money well-spent, with high library use and satisfaction.

So, can we afford it?

Building and operating a new library will require several funding sources. Other library districts have consistently obtained foundation grants. Additionally, a local family has pledged $250,000 as matching funds for a capital campaign, to be launched this fall if voters approve District tax funding. Those two funding sources can reduce the tax amount needed.

Further, big cost savings can be realized by using the Town-owned Depot site (designated as the new library “preferred site”) and adjoining parking lot (the Town-owned “RTD lot”).

But to be clear: tax funding is essential to make a new library feasible. Without a stable tax base, there is no ability to obtain a long-term, low-interest USDA construction loan.

Similar-size library districts have an average annual tax levy of 5.90 mills. (Nederland, the newest and closest comparable library, is at 6.60 mills.) The LRLD’s proposed tax rate is 5.85 mills – slightly below average, but enough to yield about $370,000 per year, covering basic operations and debt service. That’s about $12 per month for a $300,000 house.

Other communities have been able to afford similar projects, and without the advantages Lyons has like a low-cost, parking-included site and an up-front matching pledge. Lyons can do the same.

Another “affordability” item bears brief mention. The budget-strapped Town would free up $100,000 per year for other uses (such as infrastructure) if library operations go to the Library District with its much larger tax base.

Finally, are libraries worth the money?

The Lyons Economic Development Commission, Town Board and Chamber of Commerce provided major impetus for the “new library” project, believing modern libraries to be local economic stimulators.

Is that right? Numerous studies say “yes.” The studies, collected under “Resources” on www.theheartoflyons.org , document economic benefits: enhanced “workplace literacy”, small business database resources, higher property values, money spent by visitors, increased community attractiveness as a business location. That doesn’t include indirect benefits like children’s learning programs that improve local schools or the value of meeting space for businesses.

Those are Lyons’ “library economics”. The “people aspects” – moving the community forward together on an exciting new project – are just as important. Those will be explored in future articles.