Denver Government

Denver Public Library Boosters Want Bond Money for Central Renovation

The Denver Public Library Central branch is in need of some cash.
The Denver Public Library Central branch is in need of some cash. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
A new arena, two new branch libraries, homeless shelters. These are some of the things that the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock wants to fund with a new, $450 million bond package. But while that package does include a wide array of projects, Jeff Riley, executive director of the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation, is concerned about what's left out: helping complete the current renovation of the Central branch of the Denver Public Library.

As revealed when the Central Library reopened with truncated hours on July 18 after being closed since March 2020, much of the first floor of the circa 1995 facility has been renovated, but there is still a long way to go.

Phase one of the Central Library renovation project had a total price estimate of $65 million. The 2017 Elevate Denver bond package earmarked $38 million for the work; through other city money and funding generated by the foundation, $46 million out of the $65 million has already been covered, leaving a $19 million gap.

"We're not against any portion of the bond. We would just like to find a way to find an additional $19 million, whether from the bond or from stimulus money or from others," Riley explains.

"We thought that because it was classified as a Tier One project, it would likely get at least some funding, and that additional funding would give us, if necessary, a little more time to do some fundraising to do all of phase one," he continues. "Without that, it makes it harder and longer, and it makes it more expensive. If we got funding right now, we could continue with the current contractor and current architect. It's quite a process to contract those as contracts with the city."

The bond package, which Denver City Council would need to refer to the ballot this month in order for Denver residents to vote on it in November, includes over $25.8 million for the construction of new library branches in Globeville and Westwood. It also includes an allocation of over $3.4 million for an expansion of the Hampden Branch Library. As revealed last week, the big-ticket item is $160 million for a new arena at the National Western Center.

In phase one, the Central Library renovation focuses on eight major components: two new entryways, a new children's library, a new teen library, a new outdoor play space, a renovation of the Great Hall, a new commons area and a large program space. When the Central branch reopened last month, the completed projects included a room right off the Broadway entrance that allows for meetings between people experiencing homelessness and peer navigators and social workers. The ground floor also has new bathrooms, a much-needed update for a building that typically served 2,500 people a day in pre-COVID times.

According to Riley, the key areas that remain unfunded are the new teen space, the outdoor play space, the commons area and part of the Great Hall renovations. "We're just trying to do this in the most efficient and effective way possible," he says.

For Rachel Fewell, the Central Library's administrator, not getting the funding through the bond package would mean disappointing Denver Public Library patrons.

"It’s just a half-complete project then," she explains. "We’re only able to do a few of the things that we have heard from our community that they want from the library, that we’ve shared with them our vision for. It’s hard to fund projects for this building in any other way."

If the library were to get the full $19 million through the bond package, the renovation work could be finished by the end of 2023, Riley says.

He wonders if the Hancock administration chose to include certain library projects in the package in order to help sell the new arena pitch. "I think it was kind of brilliant to package these things together so that folks who might not support one thing will support this other thing," says Riley. "We would want the bond to pass no matter what."

But he would still like the city to add money for the Central Library project to the package. "It would appear that it's not commonly done to redo what the mayor requests, and I get that and understand that," he concludes. "I don't know how possible or impossible it is."

The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment. A Denver City Council committee will discuss the bond package at 1 p.m. today, August 3.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.