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Boosters promise library funding

Supporters say they have "the energy and the passion" to raise $3.4-million to build a larger facility in downtown Clearwater.

If somebody wanted to work for a year to try to raise $3.4-million for you, would you accept their offer?

Some city commissioners were going to turn down such a proposition on Tuesday _ but the majority was finally convinced to change their minds.

City library supporters promised commissioners Tuesday that they would raise at least $3.4-million to help the city build a bigger, new main library to be built downtown. They were so convincing, commissioners decided to give them a shot.

"If it doesn't cost the city anything, it's hard to justify not giving them an opportunity to try it," Mayor Brian Aungst said.

If the fundraising efforts succeed, Clearwater's on again-off again new library could be as big as 82,000 to 90,000 square feet _ nearly double the size of the existing main library at Osceola Avenue and Drew Street.

Commissioners also agreed Tuesday to build the new main library near its present site. Fifty-three percent of voters in a July referendum authorized the city to build a new main library at that site.

Commissioners nixed another proposal to try to convert the Harborview Center into the library, after engineers determined that would be too expensive.

Commissioners will take an official vote next week on the library's future site and size. Also needed is a deadline for the library boosters to meet their $3.4-million goal.

Clearwater has been debating building a new main library for about 40 years.

Recently, library supporters have complained that the city has failed to prioritize or adequately finance the project. The city hired an architect three years ago to begin designing the library, but that work never started because the city put it on hold.

That's about to change. Thanks to more funding this year, the city now has $15.2-million to spend on the new main library.

With that money, the city can afford to build a 66,000-square-foot facility, which is less library space than two studies say the city needs now.

The preferred option, however, is that the city would build an 82,000-square-foot "shell" building. About 30,000 square feet or more of the building would be left unfinished on its interior, St. Petersburg architect John Toppe and Library Director John Szabo recommended on Tuesday.

Then library fundraisers can work to raise at least $3.4-million to finish the interior and furnish the space that is left incomplete, Toppe said.

If an additional $1-million is raised, the total size of the library could be expanded to 90,000 square feet, Toppe said. That's what library boosters want.

"We should not underbuild and regret it later," Judy Melges, library advisory board chairwoman, told commissioners. Melges, a fundraising leader, urged them to dream of a Mediterranean revival building with arches and warm pastel facades, overlooking Clearwater Harbor downtown.

"We have the energy and the passion to raise private funds," Melges said.

At first, only commissioners Ed Hart and J.B. Johnson agreed that the new library should be as large as possible. Johnson wants the city to devote more city funds to the project. Hart wants the community to prove it can come up with additional money to enlarge the project.

"We need to give the community the opportunity to rise to the challenge," Hart said.

But finally, Aungst changed his position at Tuesday's special meeting on the issue. He said he would let library boosters try to raise the needed money. But if they fail, the city will design a smaller library building downtown.