The Multnomah County Library is moving ahead with plans to build an enormous "flagship" library in East Multnomah County that would rival the Central Library in downtown Portland in size and services.
"This is so exciting," said Vailey Oehlke, director of libraries for Multnomah County. "It feels really good to focus on East County."
On Thursday, Jan. 30, the library plans to ask the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners, which also serves as the Multnomah County Library District Board, to consider a proposed bond package of roughly $404 million for the November 2020 election. The new East County flagship is estimated to cost roughly $125.2 million.
"I'm so excited, so stoked, at the possibility of adding library resources for East County, but a flagship library is wonderful," said Lori Stegmann, a Multnomah County commissioner representing the eastern part of the county.
The proposed bond would fund the East County flagship library. It also would pay for rebuilding and expanding six other branches. It would create a centralized and more efficient materials-handling center to move books and materials around to all the branches. There also would be seismic improvements to library buildings and the branches would be made more accessible for people with disabilities.
Oehlke said robust libraries are "a critical asset in terms of the health and success of people in this community."
Stegmann said, "East County historically doesn't receive the same amount of investments the other parts of the county receives."
The area east of Interstate 205 has long been underserved by the Multnomah County Library system. Forty percent of Multnomah County's population lives east of I-205 and only 24% of the library's footprint is there, Oehlke said. That's the lowest ratio of any of the library's regions (see map).
East Multnomah County has 0.19 square feet of library space per person, compared to 0.44 square feet for the "north" sector of the county, for example.
The proposed East County flagship library would be about 95,000 square feet. As a comparison, the downtown Portland Central Library has 103,000 square feet of public space. The new flagship would be more than four times the size of the current Gresham Library, which is 19,300 square feet and sits on a 1-acre site.
Eventually, the other East County library branches might be expanded, relocated or otherwise modified, but that is not part of the current bond proposal. Their future "remains to be seen," Oehlke said.
"The possibility of a truly regional library for the Gresham area is huge. There has never been a time in the history of our region, our nation and the planet that an informed public has been so critical, " said Diane McKeel, chair of the Mt. Hood Community College Board of Education and a former Multnomah County Commissioner.
Where to build?
One big unknown is where the flagship would be located.
Some want it in downtown Gresham. But a 95,000-square-foot building with sufficient parking would require a 4- to 5-acre footprint, which would be hard to come by downtown.
"I haven't spoken directly with the mayor (of Gresham). He has a focus and vision for downtown Gresham, which I completely support," Oehlke said.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis was not available to discuss the new library and its potential location but sent a statement to The Gresham Outlook — sister publication of the Portland Tribune — that said: "I'm thrilled by the conversations about locating a new flagship library branch in Gresham. With more and more families with young kids moving here, this area is a great location for a new library that would serve as an essential community hub not only for reading but for learning and workforce development. Of course, developing this crown jewel of our library system will require a thoughtful eye on what location would most benefit the community. I can't wait to welcome them to Gresham."
Another idea being floated is to move Gresham City Hall downtown and put the flagship East County Library on the property where City Hall stands, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway.
The former Kmart property at 440 N.W. Burnside Road is a large parcel and is empty. It's unknown if the New Jersey-based owner would sell.
Oehlke said she also is open to putting the library at another East County site, outside of Gresham, if an appropriate location can't be found in Gresham.
Oehlke said any site selected must have good public transportation options to make the flagship library accessible to people who have to rely on the bus, MAX or other alternatives.
"One of our highest values is that there is good access by public transit," she said.
The idea for a big East County library was made public— and detailed in The Outlook — in June 2017 in a 100-page report called "Framework for Future Library Spaces." The report outlined the needs of the entire library system and plans to meet those needs over time.
Why not download it?
Some might question why a new brick and mortar building is necessary, considering that many people are downloading the latest book or streaming classic movies?
"We still have books and we will continue to have books," Oehlke said, but emphasized that libraries are a resource that is free and open to everyone. And the library evolves with technology and the needs of the population.
Stegmann stressed "libraries are essentially important to children, especially those that are less affluent. Parents reading to their children not only increases the child's vocabulary, but reading builds closer relationships between parents and their children."
Low-income people without access to a computer or Wifi can come to the library and polish up and send out résumés to look for a better job. The library also hosts support groups for job seekers.
The East County branches have English classes and computer classes. The Pokemon Club draws lots of fans. Mah-Jong players gather Tuesday afternoons for a lively game at the Gresham Library.
Crafting and art workshops abound. Programs are provided in English, Spanish, Russian and other languages.
There are story hours for children and rooms for community groups to meet. The demand for meeting spaces is so high, for example, that the Belmont branch in Portland has to turn down 70% of the requests it gets for meeting rooms, said Shawn Cunningham, the library's director of communications and strategic initiatives.
Oehlke said library executives and consultants worked hard to estimate the money needed for these projects, even though there are some unknowns such as the East County site and cost of the land and future construction and materials costs.
"We are feeling very good about these numbers," Oehlke said.
Construction on the East County flagship likely would not begin until 2022.
The proposed $404 million eight-year bond would cost about $12 per month in new taxes for a home with an assessed value of $200,000.
Oehlke is bullish that Multnomah County voters will approve a bond, even though the bulk of the money will go to build something in East Multnomah County.
There are also some other big bonds likely to be on the November 2020 ballot in Multnomah County, including a hefty bond for Portland Public Schools, one for David Douglas schools and a Metro regional government transportation bond.
"There is no perfect time to go for a bond. And, we do understand there will be other asks. But this isn't something we dreamed up yesterday. We've been working on this, thoughtfully, for a long time," Stegmann said.
"It will require some conversations," Oehlke said, but "people understand that East County has needs and that gives us confidence," she said.
"(Multnomah County) is a community that understands that there is a greater good and community good ... that it's important to have library spaces for people facing the greatest barriers," Oehlke said.
"This is a great thing for East County," she added.
Said Stegmann: "This will be a jewel in the crown of libraries in a community that needs it more than any other part of the county."