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Saskatoon mayoral candidates differ on viability of a new downtown central library

The cost of a new downtown central library has come under scrutiny by at least three mayoral candidates in the upcoming municipal election on Nov. 9. Devon Latchuk / Global News

Saskatoon Public Library (SPL) says it has taken the next steps toward a new downtown central library.

However, the cost of the project has come under scrutiny by at least three mayoral candidates in the upcoming municipal election on Nov. 9.

Two key documents for the project were released Tuesday by SPL — a request for proposal for design services and the design brief functional program.

SPL officials said the design team will be selected in October and will be guided in designing the library by the functional program — a statement of the building needs.

Read more: Saskatoon Public Library reopening branches in phases

That will include input from the public through community engagement this fall.

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“We’re thrilled to see the tremendous progress that has been made on this long-overdue project for our city,” said SPL board chair Brett Bradshaw.

“With the need for a new downtown library having been recognized for more than two decades, the board is pleased to move forward and excited to see the economic and social benefits it will bring to the city.”

A borrowing request of $67.5 million for the project, nearly half of the inflation-adjusted total budget of $134 million (2026 dollars), was approved by city council in 2019.

Read more: Rob Norris wants proposed new downtown library shelved

Rob Norris questions the cost of a new central library due to the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s budget and the current tax burden.

“This is about $67.5 million of debt-funded taxpayer money. That is an enormous amount of money,” Norris said Wednesday.

“What we’ve seen is entire libraries being built in Canada, very nice libraries for less than that debt finance.”

Norris pointed to Kitchener, Waterloo and Halifax, communities he said have new libraries at a cost between $50- and $70-million.

Click to play video 'Rob Norris on a new downtown Saskatoon central library' Rob Norris on a new downtown Saskatoon central library
Rob Norris on a new downtown Saskatoon central library – Sep 9, 2020

Current Mayor Charlie Clark — who is running for re-election — said any delay in the project would increase costs down the road.

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He said the project would create construction jobs and stimulate more growth in the downtown core.

“The library is underway, they’ve purchased land, they’re planning,” Clark said.

“What my goal is, is to encourage and see how we can make sure this gets the best value for a slow economy in terms of new jobs and the best value for a thriving downtown, just like we’ve seen happen in Calgary and Halifax and other cities where new central libraries have been instrumental in helping to reinvigorate downtown.”

Click to play video 'Charlie Clark on a new downtown Saskatoon central library' Charlie Clark on a new downtown Saskatoon central library
Charlie Clark on a new downtown Saskatoon central library – Sep 9, 2020

Former mayor Don Atchison, who is also running in the upcoming election, said questions need to be answered.

While he is in favour of a new library, Atchison said a legal opinion is needed on whether borrowing already approved by council can be rescinded.

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“The first question that needs to be asked is to the city solicitor and to the city clerk is this even possible to do? Because in the bylaws, it’s very ambiguous in some ways where it says that you can’t undo something that has been done like this,” Atchison told Global News.

“(People) want to know that when council makes a decision, that decision is going to be moving forward. They don’t want you wondering six months or a year from now whether or not or what you’re contemplating is, in fact, going to happen anymore.”

Read more: Land purchased for new downtown Saskatoon library

Mayoral candidates Cary Tarasoff and Zubair Sheikh both previously said the project should not go ahead.

Tarasoff said a new library is unnecessary given the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheikh said while he supports libraries, providing cheaper internet to students and their families would have a greater positive impact on their education.

SPL said a new central library is needed to meet the needs of a growing city and is a critical piece of its long-term growth plan.

Officials added the current Frances Morrison Central Library, built in 1966, is also non-compliant with many building codes, including fire, mechanical, electrical and accessibility, with some dating back 20 years.

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The city had purchased land on 2nd Avenue North for the proposed central library at a cost of $9 million.