Decision by Kennett Square council on partnering with library could set the town back decades

In the past few years, Kennett Square council has made decisions to set itself up for success. Its decision a few years ago to craft an ordinance permitting brewpubs, and partnering with Kennett Township on ordinances allowing for planned growth of exciting upcoming development are just two examples of that vision. As a result, Kennett Square today is enjoying unprecedented growth and prosperity.

But Monday night’s decision could undo all of that. In fact, the decision threatens to alienate itself with the Kennett Library and could force the library’s board of directors to build a new library outside of the borough -- something borough residents said they do not want.

Council voted unanimously to accept a Memorandum of Understanding to partner with the library on a $15 million civic center that would house not only the Kennett Library, but the Kennett Square Police Department and Borough Hall.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) paves the way for architectural design, estimated to cost nearly $1.4 million. The vote commits the borough to pay its share of this cost, estimated to be $460,000 (one-third of the architect’s fees) to $700,000 (one-half of the fees).

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The reason the exact cost isn’t known is because council came to the table Monday night not knowing if it would share half the cost for the fees, or one-third.

And the reason for that? Some councilors took it on themselves to change the terms of the original agreement spelled out in a Visioning Study that involved 350 people and took countless hours to put together. Anyone in real estate knows that a counter-offer must be renegotiated to determine if the new terms are acceptable. And in this case, it appears the library’s board of directors will not agree to terms that will end up costing much more than outlined initially.

“I think they (council) did their best to scuttle the project,” said Jeff Yetter, a member of the library’s board of directors. “I know they (the library board) will not accept (council’s) MOU. Their terms are all to their favor. They reneged on the original deal.”

How can this happen? How can a progressive project that would not involve a tax hike and set the borough up for at least the next 50 years be erased by penny-pinching councilors?

To be fair, not all councilors wanted to squeeze money out of the library. Last week, when Councilman Wayne Braffman suggested eliminating the borough’s cost to build a 300-seat auditorium, and spending it on parking, we envisioned trouble. And squabbling over the share of costs for the underground parking garage led to unneeded tensions. Perhaps the borough didn’t need parking in its plan, but this is a shared project. Just because the library will have two-thirds of the building doesn’t mean it pays two-thirds of the cost for the underground parking garage.

This project -- more than any other except maybe for the Genesis Building -- has the potential to make an impact on Kennett Square like no other. Here’s what we do know. New libraries stimulate economic development. Studies have proven that every dollar spent on a new library returns $5.50 to the municipality in which it is located. A new library could bring up to 130,000 more people to town every year. That means more foot traffic in the borough’s commercial business district. More chances for local businesses and restaurants to thrive.

And the fact that this entire project could be done without impacting taxpayers is simply a no-brainer. Mayor Matt Fetick, who said he was seeking another term in office to see the project through, said it was “irresponsible” to do otherwise.

The way we see it, if the council would have just simply voted on the original proposal -- changing nothing -- the vote would have still been approved by a 4-3 margin. The firm supporters, in addition to Fetick, include Council President Dan Maffei, Geoff Bosley, Doug Doerfler and Jamie Mallon.

Borough officials should be investing in the library, which is used extensively by many of the borough’s Latino community.

The plan was so exciting when it was announced last year and had the potential to change the shape of the town for the better. Too bad a few elected representatives had to nickel and dime the project to a point where it now may be scrapped. It’s short-sighted of them because in the long-term, this could have really been something great for the town.

Let’s just hope clearer heads prevail in the coming weeks. Time is of the essence. Library officials have waited 20 years to build a new facility, and a new building will be constructed with or without council’s involvement. But the thought of the library moving out of town really scares us.

If the library’s board rejects the amended MOU, we urge council to set up a meeting to accept the original terms set forth in the Visioning Study. Too much is at stake.