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Madison construction unions back library renovation (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Madison-area construction unions are lining up behind Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s push to renovate the city’s central library. But some groups are not sold on the plan.

“Unemployment’s at 20 percent in our local alone,” said Dave Boetcher, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 159 Madison office. “We’re obviously looking for jobs, and the longer you wait on large-scale projects, the harder it becomes to move forward.”

After negotiations broke down this month with Madison-based The Fiore Cos. Inc., the city abandoned plans for an estimated $37 million new library on West Washington Avenue.

Cieslewicz then announced the city would renovate the existing library on West Mifflin Street, and that the Madison Public Library Board and Common Council would be asked to approve renovation plans in the next two months.

He said Friday that trying to find another site for a new building could delay the project by at least two years, meaning the possibility of higher construction costs and trying to get it into a future city budget with no guarantee of passage.

But some groups are wary of Cieslewicz’s plan. Susan Schmitz, president of business group Downtown Madison Inc., said the group’s executive committee will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the project.

“We’re not going to be pointing fingers,” she said. “But knowing how this committee functions, there will be questions like, ‘What happened to the original vision we bought into? Is it really dead?’
“It’s quite disappointing to lose that plan.”

The plan, which was included in the 2010 city budget, would have had a Fiore-led development team design and build a new library’s exterior. The team then would have turned the project over to the city to build the interior, and the fees the team received for building the shell would have let Fiore buy the city’s existing library and redevelop it into a mixed-use project.

Schmitz said getting a major library in a more prominent site and turning the old library into a mixed-use development would have let the city increase its tax base and would have complemented the Overture Center for the Arts.

But Alderman Larry Palm, who is a member of the library board, said renovation will be quicker and cheaper.

“I understand people liking the original idea, but I sure hope everyone on the library board and the council goes for renovation,” he said. “I like the notion that we can control what’s built, and I think it’s a much more interesting challenge to reuse the existing building.”

Cieslewicz said he wants a third floor added to the library.

“I want to emphasize we’re talking about a new building,” he said. “We’re going to strip it down to the floor plates and pillars and rebuild from the same superstructure.”

Talk of any construction jobs in Madison is music to workers’ ears, said Scott Vaughn, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin.

“It’s a matter of being able to do a project now and not several years from now,” he said. “We’re in a situation where there’s not much work on the horizon and if nothing happens, then our members are staying in their homes and trying to avoid bankruptcy.”

There are no estimates on how many jobs a renovation project would create, but Vaughn said that does not sway his organization’s support of renovation.

“At this point,” he said, “we fight for one job.”

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