There is a lot of excitement about the New Central Library planned for our community. This vision has been coming together for years and the need for an upgraded facility is clear. Below I'll share some key considerations about the project and the roles that each of City Council and the Saskatoon Public Library Board play.
The Saskatoon Public Library (SPL) is proposing to build a New Central Library (NCL) in the downtown to replace the current Frances Morrison Central Library. The new building is proposed to be approximately double in size and will include flexible spaces that a modern library demands, but also basic improvements such as sufficient number of bathrooms, improved and full physical accessibility across the building as well as both outdoor and indoor green space.
For full background on this project, please consult the Saskatoon Public Library's dedicated project website: https://saskatooncentrallibrary.ca/
As both a member of City Council and the Saskatoon Public Library Board I am very familiar with this project and the decisions yet to be made. This project is, and will remain, a project of the SPL. The reason this project is in front of City Council is that the SPL requires the City to borrow funds for the project on its behalf (this is required by Provincial legislation). Here are a few of my considerations, as a member of City Council regarding this borrowing:
The SPL has budgeted that the project will cost a total of $154 million and that they require $87.5 million in borrowing from the City.
Q: Is that too big?
149,000 square feet is big! The plans for how big the library would be came from a Functional Program developed on the basis of sector best practice and community consultation. The residents of Saskatoon told SPL they wanted more computers, spaces for children to play, more materials (and all of them accessible - not in the basement where only staff can access them!), and more. The functional plan is here: https://saskatooncentrallibrary.ca/functional-program. All of the spaces planned are primarily for core SPL programs and use. Partnerships will be expanded, and occasionally, four spaces will be available for rental when not in use by the library, however rental use is not the core intent of any space in the new central library.
In order to be fully accessible (more so than any other public building) so that everyone can access all of the spaces, more space is needed. The results will be that someone with accessibility challenges should be able to get through the building, not just by one route, but by ANY route. This is a fundamental distinction that is the difference between accessibility, and full accessibility.
Q: Is it too expensive?
This is, notably, a very large project, and a significant investment. When looking at this number, and comparing this number to other major capital projects, a few things are important to keep in mind: 1) this budget is inflated to 2026 dollars; 2) there is a 25% contingency included in this budget; 3) expense pressures on this project include a premium for full accessibility and environmental excellence; 4) all costs are represented in this number - this includes design, land costs, 'soft costs', as well as full construction and commissioning;
The City's administration compared the construction estimates in the NCL plan to recent civic projects such as the Remai modern and the new Police station and determined that the estimates are reasonable.
As Councillor, the contingency in this project gives me confidence that once the project proceeds, there will not need to be a revisit of the borrowing decision, because the project won't go over-budget. It also, however, makes me want to know what will happen if not all of this contingency is required; What the SPL has committed to is that if any estimates come in under budget (i.e.: land costs, or contingency use, etc.) they will reduce the amount borrowed. Borrowing approval is "up to," and the SPL can ultimately borrow less. Monies won't be borrowed until they are going to be spent. As a member of the Library Board, it is my intention to work hard to see money efficiently spent, and many items come in under the budget established in the business case.
Q: So, where's the rest of the money coming from, and how will debt to the City be repaid?
The SPL has been building up a reserve for this project over the last 10 years. This has been supported by City Council through approval of library levy increases each year and invested in by our whole community. The increases will continue through 2026 to continue building up those contributions to the project, and this will fund the debt repayment over 30 years. Other sources of funding are the sale of the Frances Morrison building, and a capital fundraising campaign. As noted, if either of those brings in more funds than estimated, the borrowing will be reduced.
Q: Can the City afford the debt?
The City has a debt ceiling that is set and regularly evaluated by a provincial body. A full report on the implications of adding this to the City's existing debt by City administration was presented to Council. In short, the City has the room under our current debt ceiling to borrow the requested amount. Other projects are likely to arise that will put other pressure on this ceiling and it may need to be raised at a later date. All in all, the City's debt load per capita (per resident) is the lowest among comparable Western Canadian cities. This and a number of other financial practices allows us a very good credit rating (AAA) that gives the City very favourable borrowing rates. At some point, this credit rating could be lowered due to changes in debt or other financial shifts; however, the administration's report linked above advises that "investment decisions should focus on the strategic direction, priorities and needs of citizens" and not solely on credit rating impacts.
Q: Can residents afford a new Library?
We have, as a community, been investing in this project for 10 years already. Increases to the library levy have funded a reserve and increased annual contributions to that reserve over that time. This strategy was put in place by the Library with support of Council to prepare for this investment. That reserve will pay for a good portion of the project, and as the project proceeds, those contributions will become the source for debt repayment to the City. The increases to the levy for this project will need to continue until 2026, at which point, annual contributions will be enough to pay off the debt over 30 years. These levy increases will continue to mean an increase of $5/year per household (with an average assessed property value of $371,000). We have been prioritizing this investment with our library levy contributions for 10 years, and another 7 years will get us to the goal of a new central library.
Q: So, do we need a New Central Library, and if so, how soon?
There are a few considerations to be made here. First, the existing Frances Morrison Central is nearing 60 years old. It is no longer serving the needs of patrons or SPL staff. With too few bathrooms and exits, not enough space for collections or staff, inappropriate storage for valuable local history materials, and not enough space or outlets for computers, SPL has outgrown this building. Since it was built, the number of staff working there has grown by nearly 75%, the collection has grown by 170% and the City's population is 2.5x what it was on opening in 1966. This clearly says, yes, a new home is needed for this invaluable service.
It has been asked whether a new building is the answer and suggestions have been made about spaces the library could buy or rent. While the business case lays out clearly that a new build is the best option, the SPL has met with any stakeholders who wanted to discuss co-location, partnership, tenancy and more. No appropriate fits exist at this time, and the business case is clear that the patrons of SPL and the community of Saskatoon will be best served by a standalone building specifically designed for SPL. This is in part because of many of the functional demands of a library (extra load capacity to hold many many books, need for full accessibility, growing technology demands, efficient layout for staffing, etc.). It is also because of the need to make the library a welcoming space to all - something that would not be the sole priority if the building were shared.
So, when? There is no perfect answer to this question for any project, but false starts on this project in years past show just how much organizational readiness and planning are important. The Saskatoon Public Library is well positioned, through organizational readiness and a very focused strategic plan to function efficiently in a new building. There is high capacity among SPL leadership and throughout the SPL staff team to make this transition. The SPL is ready. As outlined above, the funding plan is also ready, having been kickstarted 10 years ago. By sticking the course, the project funds are well over half set up through the library levy, and the borrowing decision is the key to unlocking this project.
Have questions not answered here? Check out the resources listed below.
Want to send some feedback? Catch me at firstname.lastname@example.org
New Central Library webpage (links to all background documents): https://saskatooncentrallibrary.ca/
New Central Library FAQs: https://saskatooncentrallibrary.ca/faq
Triple Bottom Line review of NCL vs FMCL (by City admin): https://pub-saskatoon.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=102228
Saskatoon Public Library webpage (governance & operations): https://saskatoonlibrary.ca/