ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY LAURA CAMPBELL
For the past five years, one of the oldest and biggest buildings in downtown Burns has sat empty, its dark form a sharp contrast to the lit-up restaurants and shops just down the town’s main street where residents and visitors gather for Friday-night fun.
But library board director Barb Stuhlsatz hopes that in six months, the 100-year-old building at 111 N. Washington will again be alight, this time with learning and meeting of minds, as the new home of the Burns library and city hall.
“It’s going to be so nice for the town to have that lit up again and being used,” Stuhlsatz said.
“It’s just going to help the whole downtown business district.”
Work began a month ago on the nearly $200,000 renovation of the brick building, Stuhlsatz said.
Soon to house the library on its north side and city offices and a meeting room on its south side, the building has been home to numerous other businesses and organizations over the century.
Most notably, the town post office was located there for nearly 80 years until it moved next door to a new building in 2000.
It was at that time, Stuhlsatz said, that the Burns library board began eyeing the vacant building as a potential new location for the library, which has resided for several decades in a building too small to hold even half of the more than 10,000 books it now owns.
“The building we’re in now is an old supervisor’s shack from the old oil fields,” she said of the building at 106 N. Church, located across the street from the city building.
“That’s what we’ve been in for the last 40-some years-it’s getting to be a tired little building.”
But in the process of applying for grants to make that dream a reality, other grants came through for the construction of the Burns community center, Stuhlsatz said.
“So of course, as it should, a lot of focus went to that, because we had (those grants),” Stuhlsatz said.
After the community center was completed in spring of 2003, the town returned its attention to raising funds for the building renovation project, but by that time, the projected costs had grown beyond what was originally anticipated.
Stuhlsatz said the board trimmed some costs from the renovation plans but opted largely to accommodate extra expenses by expanding fund-raising endeavors.
“You can only take out so much without messing with the integrity of the project,” she said. “We certainly didn’t want to do that.”
The board secured a set of grants from the United States Department of Agriculture that would give them $50,000 and loan the city another $50,000 to put toward the project at a reasonable interest rate-but only if the board could raise the other $91,500 it needed by Aug. 15 of this year.
“We were in danger of losing the grant, so we were up against a time crunch,” Stuhlsatz said. “But the awesome thing was that this was the last year that that much money was available to anyone.
“So if we lost it, we would really be losing a lot.”
Still about $55,000 short of that total as of May, the board raced keep its end of the bargain, sending more than 800 letters to current and former Burns residents as well as area businesses.
And thanks to a healthy sum from the Sabatini Family Foundation of Topeka and more than 100 individual donors, the board actually exceeded its goal by the close of summer, Stuhlsatz said.
But the board received more than money for the library from its generous donors, Stuhlsatz said.
“A lot of the older people who would send (money) from wherever they live now would also send these little notes telling you what they remembered of the building,” she said.
“I’m going to take all those letters and put them in a three-ring binder and have them available for people who come to the library.”
The board accepted bids from McCollom Construction of Augusta and PKHL Architects of El Dorado for the renovation project, scheduled to be completed March 15, Stuhlsatz said.
Allowing another six weeks to install shelving, arrange furniture and put books in place, Stuhlsatz said a ribbon-cutting for both sides of the building will likely be held at the beginning of May.
“It’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done,” she said. “The people I’ve talked to are excited.”
And while the goal is to restore the outside to its original look, Stuhlsatz said the inside should look completely different than post office patrons remember it.
“They took it all the way down to bare brick walls and are framing it,” she said. “We did restore the tin ceiling on the library side.”
In the back of the south side will be bathrooms and a meeting room with access from both the library and city hall.
The current city hall will continue to serve as storage for the city worker’s tools and first-responder equipment, Stuhlsatz said.
But that building wasn’t as impressive of a place to bring first-time visitors to town, she said.
“Burns is very lucky-we’ve done some kind of cool things, so we have people that’ll come here and want to see (that),” she said.
“It’s nice now that they’ll have a nice place to come to.”
Future plans include renovating the apartment on the building’s second floor, Stuhlsatz said.
“The rent from that would help defray (upkeep) costs,” she said.
“It’s this cool apartment-it just needs to be updated.”
But the larger space for the town library is definitely what Stuhlsatz and other residents are most anticipating, she said.
“We have tons and tons of books that we just can’t put out because we don’t have room,” she said.
“I think people are just going to be unbelievably amazed when they see how many books we actually have.”
Librarian Rhonda Loucks will also finally have a place to hold storytimes, Stuhlsatz said.
And the town’s General Educational Development program, in its second year, will have a location with more reference materials and technology at students’ fingertips than currently at the community center.
The new library will have three computers with a fast Internet connection for both GED students and others to do research.
“There’s so much you can do online now,” Stuhlsatz said.
She said the library also plans to offer free computer/Internet classes to community residents.
“We have some great programs that we’ve just never had the room for,” she said.
“We have all these great ideas.”
But Stuhlsatz said the library could still use more money to help make these ideas come to life.
“We’re still more than happy to take donations for the library,” she said. “Any extra monies will go to furnishing the interior of the library and help with renovations to the apartment upstairs.”
Securing the funds to renovate this building puts the town on the right track to fund further improvements down the road, Stuhlsatz said.
“Because we move into this, it actually makes us more eligible for grant money,” she said.
“It’s such a vicious circle, but we’re finally on the right side of the circle.”
To make a donation, call Barb Stuhlsatz at 620-726-5603 or send a check for the library building fund to Community National Bank, 207 N. Washington, Burns KS 66840.