Library board expects to vote on North Christian property next month

Mike Wolanin | The Republic An exterior view of North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Bartholomew County Public Library Board members unanimously agreed Monday to plan to vote on whether to accept the gift of the former North Christian Church building and property at its next meeting at 4 p.m. April 15 at the library.

Members did so in the library’s Stephen Suckow Atrium after nearly an hour-long, vigorous discussion — the first public one that board members have had among themselves — that focused on future possibilities and also worries over annual expenses of the facility, plus support of other entities in operating it as a satellite library location for a range of programming and activities.

Specifically, board member Vern Jorck said he needed more information to have some general idea what entity or entities — especially among area nonprofits — might join the library to assist in operating the space and cover expenses. Jorck said he felt that was the responsible thing to do.

He emphasized during the meeting that he “is not against” receiving the heralded Modernist building and property from current owner and property facilitator Columbus Capital Foundation. Other board members such as secretary Laura Hack and Stephen Shipley reiterated the same feeling that they would like more specifics before voting.

The building became empty in July 2022 when North Christian’s attendance dwindled to a handful of people and the church disbanded. The Columbus Capital Foundation stepped in to serve as a go-between for someone to take over the 1964 structure designed by globally-known architect Eero Saarinen.

Board president Gary Gron also expressed some concern.

“I’m generally in favor of this (taking over the former church property),” Gron said. “But I’m mindful of things like Tom Hanks in the movie ‘The Money Pit, where you have something that looks beautiful at night, but then reality sets in.’”

The film highlights a couple who buys an apparently beautiful, candlelit mansion that suddenly and immediately requires repairs to problems that were hidden.

In short, Gron referred to concerns over future expenses that cannot currently be fully estimated. Library director Jason Hatton acknowledged that the structure would need a new boiler, new ductwork, and would have to be made more modernly ADA-accessible beyond a current elevator.

Jorck and others said they more concerned about annual operating expenses at the former church versus renting “really nice” programming space elsewhere for less expense and less financial risk.

Board member Dawn Doup-Pandit and Hatton reminded others that the attraction of the church, besides its artsy beauty, is in its pivotal location within walking distance of several schools so youngsters could walk, for example, to after-school programs and activities. Since Hatton assumed the helm of the library several years ago, the library’s community outreach has been a central priority — to get the library’s resources beyond the walls of its Fifth Street main locale, as Hatton has put it.

Doup-Pandit noted that the student-parent foot traffic in the former church area already is substantial. Plus, she added that she is heartened by elements of support from community leaders such as Tracy Souza. Souza is president and chief executive officer of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, and she recently mentioned that she supports the idea of the library assuming ownership of the property.

“I understand, though, that this also involves a leap of faith,” Doup-Pandit said.

Hatton told board members that he understands that about $800,000 exists in a former North Christian fund from a building insurance policy. Hatton said those funds can be used for some repairs and other needs.

Doup-Pandit said she believes that the library board must make a strong public commitment to the building before other local entities will join them in supporting and helping operate the facility as a library satellite site.

Hatton reminded Jorck and others of his view of supporting partners.

“I have never said the library can do this alone,” Hatton said. “We can’t. We have to have individuals, and we have to have partners to be able to work with us, and not only for the capital, right?”

What’s next?

The Bartholomew County Library Board will meet at 4 p.m. April 15 at the library at 536 Fifth St. to consider acquiring North Christian Church property as a library satellite site.