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Success story

Library District avoids economy's landmines in building new branch for growing Falcon area



While most government agencies are slashing budgets and laying off workers, the Pikes Peak Library District is building a new $3.3 million branch in the fast-growing, unincorporated area of Falcon.

What's up with that?

"I want to emphasize," PPLD chief financial officer Mike Varnet says, "we're funding [by] pay-as-you-go. We're not doing any debt whatsoever."

And no tax increase was needed, either. In fact, the district, funded almost solely by property taxes, hasn't had a tax hike since 1986.

The 6,000-square-foot High Prairie Branch Library, due to open next summer at 7035 Old Meridian Road, is a case study in patience and planning. Since 2006, the district's board of directors has set aside $1.5 million for the project, while at the same time keeping the two main library sites and 10 branches running as usual.

But more than half the project's costs actually are being covered by donations and grants. The district landed $500,000 from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and $971,000 from the federal Department of Transportation — the latter because the project was promoted as improving air quality by cutting drive time for library users.

While $784,428 will go toward building the branch, the transportation grant also covered replacement of one of the library's two bookmobiles. Both circulated more than 255,000 items in 2008, with the rural bookmobile handling 200,000 of those items in a service area that includes Black Forest, Calhan, Peyton, Falcon, Rush, Ellicott and Yoder. Vazquez says the new bookmobile, which will still run the eastern route sans Falcon once the new library opens, is more energy-efficient and pollutes less.

As for the land, Farmers State Bank in Falcon contributed 2.5 acres valued at $600,000. Even after the library's built, there'll be enough space for a 15,000-square-foot expansion. ("We can dream, you know," library spokeswoman Dee Vazquez says.)

Lastly, Mountain View Electric Cooperative agreed to provide infrastructure for utilities as an in-kind gift.

Reading the numbers

Why Falcon? Anyone can see it's one of the fastest-growing spots in the state; the number of patrons visiting the bookmobile increased by 13 percent in just one year, rising to 55,837 between 2007 and 2008, while circulated items jumped by more than 32,000, a 14.4 increase.

"As we have only mobile library service to this region," Vazquez says, "establishing a foothold where we had such great opportunity made sense."

Jan Meadows, mobile library services coordinator for PPLD, has watched the Falcon area transform from pastureland into a sea of homes during her 23 years at the district.

"When I came to work here, we went to Falcon and stopped at a Diamond Shamrock station on Monday afternoons for 50 minutes, and we would have 10 people at the most," she says. "It was very quiet out there then. Little kids could come across the highway [U.S. 24] to come to the bookmobile."

As more homes appeared, visits to the bookmobile increased. Last September, the bookmobile spent nearly 20 hours a month in Falcon and checked out 3,700 items.

Likewise, the book drop, which holds 200 to 300 items, became a symbol of population growth.

"It got to the point, three days a week wasn't enough," Meadows says, referring to scheduled emptying of the metal boxes. Today, the district relies on a courier service because the bookmobile can't handle the high number of returns, she says.

"We are so busy at that stop, the people are lined up out the door," Meadows adds. "They browse as they move through the line. Nobody wants to get out of the line, because the line is so long."

Beyond the lines

At the start, the new branch will be open about 42 hours per week, including some weekend hours. Although the district had hoped to purchase new materials for the branch, officials decided instead to save money and move about 14,000 items from existing libraries to the branch, mainly popular requests, such as bestsellers and children's materials, Vazquez says.

The district has been able to replace a bookmobile and build a new branch without a major layoff or cutback in service, in part, by turning to technology. Last year, the district spent $1.2 million on a radio frequency identification system that allows stacks of books to be checked out and back in at once, rather than one book at a time. That saves a lot of staff time, which is important considering that the library's overall circulation has grown to 8.2 million items, up 14 percent in 2009.

Looking ahead, Varnet says the district will invest $500,000 this year in a state-sponsored energy audit that will result in the district recapturing the investment through energy savings within eight years. That money comes from the library's fund balance. Minus that one-time expense, the district's 2010 budget is $25.8, million, less than 1 percent higher than its 2009 budget.

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