Wesley College to get state funding to renovate libraries

The old library building is at 45 S. State St., Dover. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — Wesley College, which bought the old Dover Public Library from the city for $1 last summer, is set to receive a yet-undetermined sum of taxpayer dollars to renovate the building and to update its on-campus library.

The deals, both state and college officials insist, are a boon not just to Wesley but to Dover, Kent County and all of Delaware.

Included in the capital bond bill passed on July 1 is an $11.375 million fund to “supplement investments that Delaware’s institutes of higher education are making to improve job growth and economic development.” Of that, $1.375 million is specifically earmarked for Wesley to allow it to transform the old library building, located at 45 S. State St.

The bond bill also authorizes Wesley to apply for funding annually provided to public libraries to cover up to 50 percent of the costs of construction. The college is currently preparing to submit an application for that funding for its Robert H. Parker Library. The money would not be allocated until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Wesley does not yet have a specific dollar figure for the Parker Library work.

While the small school may be a private institution, its library is in fact open to the public.

“I think bottom line is that this is about the library. This isn’t about who runs it, and if you are a public library, you should be treated as a public library and Wesley has been acting as a de facto public library for honestly I think it’s 20 years,” Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican and Wesley alumnus who requested inserting the language in the bond bill at the request of the college, said.

In August, Dover City Council overwhelmingly voted to sell the city’s former library building, which had been vacant since Dover opened its new $20.8 million library in September 2012. While the building was valued at $1.1 million in October 2016, the college paid just $1 for it.

However, Sen. Bonini and Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat, agreed to commit to the city $1.05 million in funding given to lawmakers for transportation-related projects. Of that total, $750,000 comes from Sen. Bonini, stretching across multiple years.

The $1.05 million pledged to Dover will be placed into the city’s transportation fund, which is used for infrastructure projects throughout Delaware’s capital. The move effectively allows Dover to spend $1.05 million on roadwork without raising any taxes.

In 2016, Wesley proposed it be given the building, saying it would turn it into a “state-of-the-art educational facility dedicated to the teaching and training in health science and other high-demand fields of study.” The college estimated renovations would cost $2 million and told the Council Committee of the Whole the facility would create “five to seven initial permanent jobs, with additional ones to follow.”

Officials said last year no one else had offered to buy the building, which had become a drain on the city.

City Council President Tim Slavin wrote in an email last summer the $1 cost was in recognition of the fact Wesley will “now be committing significant capital funding in order to address deferred maintenance and additional improvements necessary for a 21st century educational facility.”

The repurposing is part of an effort to boost growth in Dover and benefit the entire community, Wesley President Robert Clark said.

“This will provide seven days a week, 24/7, that revitalization (with) students there, educators there, but also as it allows us to expand our master’s of occupational therapy program and other potential health care and STEM initiatives,” he said Wednesday. “Part of that building will house a clinic, and this clinic will serve the uninsured and underinsured.”

He hopes to have work complete and the facility open by the beginning of 2020.

In June, the college was awarded a $1 million grant by the Longwood Foundation for the building.

The funding for the Parker Library would cover general capital fixes, as well as other needs that are still being determined.

Adding language in the bond bill was only step one: The application must be approved by the state, although that is extremely likely.

Mr. Clark said Wesley approached state officials with a list of needs that would benefit both Wesley and the greater Dover area as a whole.

“Like almost everything we do here at Wesley, the focus is not just, ‘How does that improve Wesley?’” he said. “The true focus is, ‘How does this allow Wesley to improve our city and our region and the educational opportunities in the future of our state?’

“I can’t say that enough, because that’s how I approach things. I don’t look at things in terms of, ‘Wow, that’ll be great for Wesley.’ My first thought is, ‘You know what, that’ll be something that will allow us to provide better educational opportunities. How will that impact our state and region?’ And if it meets those criteria, I move forward.

“And if it doesn’t, I need to readjust, because if I do something that just betters this 55 acres here, that’s not the purpose of an educational entity. It’s to provide the opportunities for folks … who then go back to our community and make our community and our region a better place and attract people.”

The Parker Library, Mr. Clark noted, is part of the Delaware Library Catalog, a group of 48 libraries around the state that share resources. Wesley is a net lender, meaning it sends out more books to other libraries than it takes in, he said.

While Sen. Bonini is a self-admitted big supporter of Wesley, he’s confident everything involving funding for the college has been handled properly. Legislative votes to approve the funding were unanimous, he noted.

Should other private colleges have public libraries, they should also be able to seek state funding, he said.

Delaware Technical Community College and the private Wilmington University are also part of the library consortium. Other than those two and Wesley, no other university in the state is a member.

Like Mr. Clark, Sen. Bonini believes the funding will create a win-win situation.

“I think anybody, regardless of where you live in Kent County, benefits when you start making progress in downtown Dover,” Sen. Bonini said.

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