SOUTH BEND -- The St. Joseph County Public Library board is taking a wait-and-see approach to the former Avon Theater.
Citing concerns about use of taxpayer dollars, the board delayed action Monday on a proposal to salvage and store decorative terra cotta tiles from the front of the vacant former movie theater at 307-309 S. Michigan St. for possible use in a future expansion of the Main Library.
Demolishing the Avon for additional downtown parking is expected to cost about $100,000, according to library director Donald Napoli. Salvaging and storing the tiles would cost an additional $200,000, which the library could pay, he said.
Napoli deemed it a compromise position because the Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County recently voted to ask the South Bend Common Council to declare the former movie house a landmark and forbid it from being demolished.
"I'm hesitant to support the compromise position that's going to cost us a lot of money," board member Terry Rensberger said.
Library district taxpayers shouldn't be burdened with costs above and beyond what is necessary for the library's needs, library board president John Wibbens said.
Restoring the tiles and preparing them for decorative installation inside a future expansion of the Main Library likely would cost an additional $250,000 to $300,000, according to Napoli. He said the library could cover the cost to salvage and store the tiles, as long as the city and HPC will join the library is an effort to raise $250,000 to $300,000 in private funds to restore the tiles, he said.
Napoli suggested HPC could establish its own fundraising effort to help share the cost and the city could use some of the $12 million in Tax Increment Finance money it collects annually in the downtown TIF district to help with the project.
The old theater was last used for public entertainment more than 30 years ago. The library bought it in 2007 from Downtown South Bend Inc. for $135,000 with the intention of demolishing the structure and eventually using the land for an expansion of the Main Library. The city and DTSB were aware at the time of the library's demolition plan, Napoli said.
James Masters, the library's attorney, sent a letter on Monday to the Common Council asking that the council void the recent HPC action because the commission didn't give the library advance notice of the public hearing, as city ordinance requires.
The letter also states that the former Avon doesn't meet the criteria to be considered a historic landmark. And it is bad public policy for HPC to force a decision that requires the library board to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the letter states.
No HPC representative attended the library board meeting.
South Bend resident Michael P. Kelly attended and encouraged the library board to look for ways to save all or part of the Avon and incorporate it into the design for a future Main Library expansion. "We have very few historical buildings left. One after another has been demolished," he said.
The board also delayed a decision on awarding a contract to demolish two other buildings near the Main Library: the former Catholic Diocese office on Wayne Street and a vacant storefront just to the east of that office.
The low bid for demolition of those two buildings is $70,000. The board will consider the bids at its August meeting.
Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe: