GARY | About 3,000 residents have signed petitions opposing the closure of the city's main library and demanding the recall of the board members who voted to convert it to a museum and cultural center, a former library official says.
But the Gary Public Library Board's leader says some of those petitioners might not oppose the plan if they realized the cost savings and services the move will afford residents.
Board President Tony Walker said the board was faced with having to shutter the main library or close several neighborhood branches because of a budget cut in half in recent years by state property tax caps and a sour economy.
Walker said the main library cost about $2.3 million per year to operate. It will be renovated and reopened as a museum and cultural center with an operating cost of about $350,000 per year, Walker said.
But Ben Coleman, a former Library Board president, questioned whether the financially troubled city can sustain such a facility. He said residents who signed his petitions would rather see the building remain a library.
Coleman said supporters of the petition believe the Library Board should have explored other cost-cutting means — such as shorter hours of operation or reduced work hours of employees — before closing and then planning to convert the building.
"I think they started out with the objective to close down the library rather than exploring alternatives for keeping it open," Coleman said. "If they had to close it down because of money, how are you going to develop and sustain a museum and cultural center?"
Coleman said he plans to deliver the petitions this week to the Gary Community School Corp. board, the Lake County Council and the mayor's office — all entities that appointed the four Library Board members who voted for the plan on the seven-member board.
Walker is among the board members for whom the petitioners demand a recall.
Walker believes some of the petition signers were misled by the false notion that Gary residents will lose public access to computers as a result of the plan. He said the new museum and cultural center will include a computer training lab with terminals open to residents.
"We'll still have a full computer lab there," he said. "You won't be able to check out a book there, but you will be able to do so many other things."
Walker said besides the savings, the plan would keep open a major downtown building and offer more "quality-of-life" improvements for residents. He also said a planned theater in the facility, exhibition halls and traveling exhibits would create a potential revenue stream to fund programming.
Walker said he visited other library systems in the state, including Crawfordsville, that have converted old library buildings into museums and cultural centers.
Most of the planned Gary facility's amenities would be free to Gary residents, who already sustain the library system with tax dollars, Walker said.