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County may privatize library cafe

After years of subsidizing the Cody library’s cafe with thousands of taxpayer dollars, Park County leaders say it may be time to turn the Biblio Bistro over to a private business.

“The fact is, we can no longer support it and still be able to support other library needs,” Park County Library Board Chair Greg Bevenger told county commissioners on Tuesday.

Over the coming year, the Bistro is projected to lose more than $49,500 — about the same amount it’s lost in the last several years. The consensus reached among the commissioners and library leaders on Tuesday was that the county and library system can no longer afford to subsidize the cafe to that degree.

“[On] that, I think we can all agree,” said Commission Chairman Lee Livingston.

County officials decided to start drafting a request for proposals (RFP), in which private businesses would be invited to submit proposals on how they might use the Biblio Bistro’s space in the Cody library and how much they’d be willing to pay in rent. While the specific parameters of the RFP have yet to be hashed out, library officials indicated they would like to see a business that maintains the cafe’s welcoming coffee-shop feel.

“Depending on what kind of response we get to the RFP, the decision can be made: Do we close it? Do we scale back? Where do we go from there?” said Commissioner Joe Tilden. He predicted there would be little private interest in the space, but “it’s certainly worth a shot.”

Closure appeared to be everyone’s least favorite option; any change would presumably affect the five library employees who currently work in the Biblio Bistro — a full-time manager and four part-time/on-call positions.

Tuesday’s discussion was prompted by an article about the Bistro’s losses that appeared in the Powell Tribune, followed by an article in the Cody Enterprise and then critical editorials from both papers.

“The board and I are really concerned about that,” Park County Library System Director Frances Clymer said of the coverage. “We feel like it’s a black mark on the reputation of Park County to have that kind of disruption about finances during a tight financial period.”

The concern prompted Clymer and the library board to approach the commissioners about seeking businesses to lease out the Bistro.

“I think it is time, especially now that it has been illuminated,” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf, who’s suggested scaling back the Bistro’s operations to save money.

Since it opened in 2008, the cafe has been envisioned as an amenity for library patrons — not as a money-making operation. The commission has also handicapped the Bistro by prohibiting it from advertising any of its services outside the library building (so it doesn’t compete with private restaurants and coffee shops).

Commissioner Tim French has argued that you can think of the Bistro as being no different than everything else government does, suggesting the county’s entire $23.39 million general budget could be viewed as a “loss.”

As Library Board Vice Chair Nickie Proffitt put it, the Bistro can be seen as “just another service we provide.”

The cafe — which offers sandwiches, lattes and other fare — has proven popular with many; Tilden called it “a great amenity,” much like the library system as a whole.

“The thing we have to remember is that a public library is one of the few places where anybody — regardless of who they are, how much money they have, what they think, what their politics are, what their religion is, anybody — can walk into that building, even without a library card, and look at our collection. And in Cody, they can have a beverage at the Bistro; they can go to a program; they can enjoy so many things that we offer to the public,” Clymer said. “These things are priceless.”

Every service does, however, carry a cost amid a limited budget. Commissioners and library leaders have hoped to make the Bistro break even, but it never has. In recent years, the cafe has lost between $47,000 and $55,000 — covering only about half of its expenses.

Proffitt said that, when new members join the library board, they all say, “What?! We’re losing this much money? We’ve got to fix it.” But she said every Bistro brainstorming session has failed because of the county’s prohibition on marketing.

“No matter what you want to do in that space, no matter what you want to do, you have to be able to let people know about it,” Proffitt said, adding that she understands why the county has the no-advertising policy.

To cover the Bistro’s projected $49,556 loss between July 1 and June 30, 2018, the library board decided to eliminate all funding for books and audio-visual materials from their $1.66 million budget. As library leaders explained in June, that does not mean the library system is going without new materials over the coming year. Instead, Park County librarians will buy them with a roughly $200,000 pool of money that library leaders have saved up with the state library system.

During budget discussions in June, Commissioner Tilden posed a rhetorical question about the library system’s priorities: “What’s more important to you,” he asked library leaders, “buying new books or keeping the Bistro open?”

In the wake of that discussion and its coverage in the media, Commissioner Livingston said commissioners heard some comments from people who would prefer to see the money “spent on books and other library things than the Bistro.” If that sentiment gathers enough momentum, “that might be the direction you need to go,” Livingston told the library board Tuesday.

However, Clymer said she’s only heard ardent support for the Bistro, while French said he’d only received a few negative comments.

“I hear from an awful lot of people [that] they love the thing. But if we have to go another direction … so be it,” French said of privatizing. “But it opens up a lot of other questions, running a commercial restaurant inside the library.”

For his part, Bevenger suggested the cafe’s popularity is not the issue.

“It doesn’t matter if 60 percent of the community wants to keep it open and 40 percent wants to keep it closed; the fact is there’s a money issue here,” he said.

Library officials and commissioners will discuss the RFP again at another work session.

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