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Will Boise residents include a new main library branch on their wish list? What will they be willing to pay for it?

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The iconic exclamation point that dots the main branch of the Boise Public Library couldn't be more appropriate. Not only does it promote what library officials tout as the "excitement and engagement" of reading, it also punctuates a proposed price tag for what could be a new landmark for learning but also one of the largest and most expensive public construction projects in Idaho history:

$119 million!

"We're in the dreaming stage right now," said Boise Public Library Director Kevin Booe. "Our library, as anybody who has been here knows, the main library is quite cramped. We need to do some things to update this facility for the 21st century."

It's no secret the Boise Public Library wants to address the main library's cramped quarters (BW, News, "Something's Got to Give," May 18, 2011). The building's original design targeted a Boise population of 75,000. In 2010, Boise's population ballooned to 205,000.

Finding a process to pay for a new main branch spurred Boise City Council members to evaluate a list of its infrastructure projects over the next eight years--a list that ultimately fell into two categories: projects funded with available cash in the city's general fund, and those whose price tags exceed the general fund's current total, requiring funds from other sources.

For example, one of the larger price tags on the second list is attached to a community library branch at Bown Crossing in Southeast Boise (which would be the city's fourth satellite branch), at a cost of $6.8 million.

But the biggest project, in size and cost, would be a new main public library with a nine-digit price tag.

According to Jade Riley, Mayor Dave Bieter's Chief of Staff, there simply isn't enough general-fund cash to pay for all of it.

"We realized this is not something where we have a couple of meetings and Howdy-Doody, here's our answer," said Riley. "It's really a pretty long conversation just internally, and an even longer conversation with the community before we do anything."

Bieter, his staff and the City Council are working on the early stages of finding a path forward. That conversation includes looking at alternative funding measures and managing priorities. Most importantly, it includes asking Boiseans if they're willing to pay more to fund projects such as a new main library.

In 2010, estimates for a new 185,000-square-foot main branch totaled $119 million, a number that the mayor and City Council considered to be a bit too high to consider in the throes of a recession.

"Right now, this project is carrying the $119 million," said Riley. "So as soon as we figure out if that could go lower, what might that look like, and the pros and cons, then we can bring it back into the overall city discussion."

The next key step for officials at the library and City are to map out three possible scenarios by early 2013. Riley sketched out what those options could include. No. 1: upgrading a four-story, 78,000-square-foot facility, a former hardware store renovated in 1972. No. 2: adding to the existing structure, securing more space for the library's footprint. No. 3: construct a new building.

"I think based on mayor and council's discussions, [the ideal scenario] would be a new building with a lower price tag," said Riley. "Nobody has said, 'It shouldn't be $119 million; it should be $60 million.' But [it should be] lower than $119 million."

Meanwhile, City officials are considering the proposed Bown Crossing branch, an extension of the neighborhood branch system that began in 2007 as a response to overcrowding at the main Capitol Boulevard branch. The first three neighborhood locations included the 15,000-square-foot Library at Cole and Ustick roads, the 12,000-square-foot Collister branch and the 8,000-square-foot Hillcrest library. The proposed Bown Crossing branch, a new 15,000-square-foot facility. would cost approximately $6.8 million.

"I think as initial plans surrounding the main library branch come back, the Council will then want to figure out when we can promise for the Bown facility," said Riley. "And the Bown branch would most likely precede the main project. We really want to make good on the promise that we deliver on our neighborhood library service."

City officials were quick to add that a proposed new main library wasn't the only project in need of funding. In fact, before Bieter and the City Council begin evaluating ways to pay for such projects, they would need to reach out for community input.

"To start talking about what-ifs," said Riley. "All we know today is, with current funding, it is unlikely we will fund this list. That's the only thing we know today."

Riley said the City prioritizes maintaining its current assets -- renovations and maintenance -- and that includes the existing 80-year-old main library structure.

"The takeaway to me as a citizen is, we're funding annual maintenance and we're going to be committed and fund major repair and maintenance at the proper level so we don't let precious assets deteriorate," said Riley. "Most people jump over these categories and go to these goodies, the new stuff."

After the library finishes evaluating its options, the City will begin a survey process to reach out to the public. Questions will include how citizens want to prioritize Boise's projects and, more importantly, if they're willing to pay for them.

"If I was to gauge the continuum of the conversation, we're maybe one-fourth of the way through the conversation," said Riley. "And that would be on a good day."

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