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Front Porch participants tackle area library debate

When some 34 local elected and volunteer officials met at the Star Prairie Town Hall Monday night, it was an important moment worth mentioning.

The group gathered to discuss the possibility of establishing a regional library for the New Richmond area. Also on the agenda was discussion on the possible use of the Middle School building for the library and other community purposes.

It's the first joint meeting of the Government Entities Network, which has resulted from the two-year-old Front Porch Project in the New Richmond area.

"It was the most constructive meeting I've had since I started this project," facilitator Patrick Overton said. "It was also one of the most challenging."

Overton said he was impressed with Monday's turnout, and was more impressed with how everyone conducted themselves.

Even when people didn't agree on the issues, the meeting remained civil, he noted.

"It was the kind of meeting you like to see," Overton said. "There were complex issues discussed, and people challenged each other, but it was civil discourse."

Overton called the meeting a major accomplishment for the area, referring to the region's previous pattern of municipalities wrangling over common concerns in an uncivil way.

"This all happens with small steps," he said. "But this was a really big, 'small' step."

The main purpose for the meeting was for the group to vote on an agreement to have Overton develop a "Memorandum of Understanding" that will eventually be presented to the New Richmond School Board.

If the various municipalities that make up the School District agree to form a regional library organization, Overton said the group would like to explore the possible use of the Middle School property for a new library building.

The proposal calls for the oldest portions of the school to be torn down, with the newer section preserved for future community use.

But the School Board has been reluctant to sell or give the property to the city, claiming that their constituency includes residents in surrounding townships and the Village of Star Prairie.

Officials hope that a more regional approach would be looked on more favorably.

With a 33-1 vote Monday, the idea for a regional library and study of the Middle School plan continues to move ahead.

"There's no commitment to do anything yet, but it shows the group's intention," he said.

Overton said, however, the goal is to accomplish the new library plan without raising taxes.

Overton said he hopes to use public-private partnerships to reach the goal.

Currently the Friday Memorial Library is housed in an 8,000-square-foot building, with about 6,800 square feet of useable space. Library Director Scott Vrieze said the plan is to build a new facility of 28,000 to 32,000 square feet.

He said the Library already operates like a regional facility. While 50.9 percent of the Library users are New Richmond residents, 11.3 percent come from the Town of Richmond, 11.3 percent come from the Town of Star Prairie, 4.1 percent come from the Town of Stanton, 2.3 percent come from the Village of Star Prairie and 2.4 percent come from the Town of Erin Prairie.

The way the Library is funded, however, township and village residents only pay about 70 percent of their share for the facility's operation.

Vrieze said the hope is for the county to increase reimbursement levels for library services.

The Government Entities Network will continue to meet on a monthly basis to discuss topics of mutual concern. Larger group meetings, such as the one on Monday, will be conducted periodically as major issues bubble to the surface, Overton said.