The Abilene Public Library will, a few years hence, move to the former Abilene High School/Lincoln Middle School thanks to an agreement cemented between the city and the nonprofit to redevelop the historic property.
The Abilene City Council on Thursday authorized City Manager Robert Hanna to negotiate a long-term lease with the nonprofit Abilene Heritage Square Inc. to create a contemporary learning center open to those in Abilene and the surrounding area.
The project will renovate the 96-year-old academic building and 1929 gymnasium while preserving their historic facades, while new construction sensitive to the historic structures will be added to the west side of the academic building.
Not just a library, the elements of the project include components that will include an auditorium, public event, museum and other spaces to create a project that can be enjoyed by everyone, organizers said in a news conference Friday at the current downtown Abilene Public Library.
A banner announcing Abilene Heritage Square hangs on the front of the former Lincoln Middle School. The 96-year-old academic building will become home to the relocated downtown Abilene Public LIbrary. (Photo: Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News)
The Heritage Square library will replace the one on Cedar Street.
“Abilene Heritage Square represents the next step in the community’s continuing efforts to keep our wonderful city moving forward,” said Jane Beard, president of the nonprofit’s board. “This can be the living room of Abilene where groups from all walks of life are brought together in a hub of activity, complementing the many other excellent education and cultural entities open to all in our city.”
More: Abilene’s downtown library still looking toward former Lincoln Middle School
Funding substantially achieved
Concept image of the future Abilene Heritage Square at the old Abilene High/Lincoln Middle School, which will house the Abilene Public Library’s main branch, an auditorium, an extension of the Grace Museum, and other amenities. (Photo: Brian Bethel)
Estimated cost of planned renovation is $41.5 million, which includes all furnishings, and a $1.5 million endowment to help fund long-term maintenance costs.
More than 75 percent of that figure, $32.5 million, already has been raised, said Laura Moore, executive director of The Grace Museum.
“This project is at no cost to Abilene or Taylor County taxpayers,” Moore said. “We are already working hard on additional grants, corporate and individual gifts to finish up the project.”
The project will provide around 62,000 square feet of fully-furnished and equipped contemporary library space, Moore said.
About 50 percent will be new construction, she said.
The renovation work is expected to take about three years. The work will begin in the fall and is expected to be completed in time for the building’s centennial celebration in 2023.
An ideal deal
The city has yet to determine what it will do with the old Main Library space, located on Cedar Street, which was built in January 1960, following a library bond passed in December 1956.
At the time, it was hoped that the building would meet the community’s needs for 20 years; it now has been in use for more than six decades, according to a brochure about the Heritage Square project.
If the city was to renovate Abilene High/Lincoln Middle School property itself, the project likely would require a bond issue.
As a privately financed project, the city will benefit but won’t have to borrow money for the renovation or commit taxpayers to pay for the the project, according to the brochure.
The city will deed the property to the nonprofit, then will pay a lease fee at 60 cents per square foot for the library space in a 40-year agreement, adjusted based on cost increases every three years.
“That’s about a $460,000 annual payment,” City Manager Robert Hanna said Thursday night just before the council voted to pursue the lease agreement.
“Some people may think that’s a lot,” he said. “But we’re getting a $20 million library facility, and if we just did the math on that, that’s about a $1.5 million annual debt service payment over 20 years.”
That amounts to around $30 million, he said, making the lease a far more sensible option.
“It’s going to take us about 65-66 years of (those) payments to come close to that, and we’re getting this interest-free,” Hanna said. “So (by) my math is this is a good deal for the taxpayers, a good deal for our community.”
By comparison, the library system’s south branch at the Mall of Abilene pays a rate of 58 cents per square foot over the life of a 20-year lease, Hanna said in an email, a rate that does not include furniture, fixtures, equipment or janitorial services.
In addition to the new library space, “you get the synergy of the surrounding community spaces associated with the AHS project,” he said, making the project extremely attractive to the city.
For young and old
Lori Grumet, the city’s librarian, said that the plan “takes the library into the future, and it sets up Abilene to have outstanding service for all the children that come for the next 40, 60, to 100 years. “
The library area will provide appropriate space, “not only for the collection, but for the community,” she said.
“This complex is going to have a lot of study rooms so people can individual quiet space, which we have a very limited amount of right now,” Grumet said.
The facility will be able to integrate the newest technology and will have room for library programming, including new options such as a recording studio and the ability to check out computers, tools and equipment.
The children’s library portion will offer traditional library books as well as age-appropriate access to technology and computers, along with activities such as LEGO building, robotics, mystery writing, STEM projects, gaming and computer coding.
The facility will include a satellite children’s museum under the management of The Grace Museum with a scientific focus, while the children’s museum at The Grace will focus on art and history.
Children also will benefit from traveling exhibits, movies and special events in the auditorium.
Having that adjacent auditorium, which can hold 700 people, is a great opportunity, Grumet said, the library often showing, for example, free films for the community.
“This gives us an opportunity to do that in a really professional space,” she said.
It also gives offerings such as a summer programming for children “the proper kind of space for them to have those learning experiences.”
The library is only one part of the project, Moore and others emphasized Friday.
Other key features of the project include:
► A renovated 700-seat auditorium suitable for meetings, speakers, recitals, concerts and weddings.
► An exhibit hall for both local and touring exhibits from major museums and galleries.
► A satellite location for museum, including additional programming space and a second Children’s Museum with a science focus. This is in addition to the museum’s primary location on Cypress Street, Moore said.
► A “renovated and highly versatile Eagle’s Nest gymnasium,” according to project materials for events “as varied as a square dance, civic club luncheon, craft show, family reunions, yoga classes, industrial exhibits or wedding dinners. “
► A catering kitchen that allows catering service for up to 400 people seated at tables.
► A coffee shop adjacent to the library that can be accessed beyond library operating hours.
► Classrooms for the Stone Owl Academy, a program in which high school juniors and seniors can learn of constitutional principles and free-market economics while earning the Stone Owl Scholar designation and scholarship.
► The “Lawn at the Square” suitable for outdoor concerts, festivals and special events.
Fees will be charged for use of some spaces, and some exhibits and classes conducted by The Grace and the library may require the payment of fees.
By the community, for the community
Abilene Heritage Square Inc. was formed when a group of Abilene residents were concerned about the fate of Abilene High/Lincoln began exploring possible uses for the school.
Volunteers went through 17 potential options before coming up with a viable plan, at that point organizing a board of directors.
“There have been countless meetings, trips to see other facilities, and experts consulted before the board of Heritage Square arrived (at the current) plan,” Beard said.
Weatherl and Associates was chosen as project architects based on based on their experience in restoration architecture projects for The Grace, Elks Building and T&P Depot, Freight Building and Baggage Building, as well as Old Main at McMurry University.
Preliminary concept drawings for Abilene Heritage Square won an award from the Texas Society of Architects.
Designed by renowned architect David Castle, the historic buildings of Abilene High School are considered of architectural significance.
“This is an homage to the past and is a progress look to the future,” Moore said of the project. “… This is the right time and the right place.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
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