Last year, the Somerset Public Library started the Renew Somerset Library Campaign to help raise funds for an expansion to the current building. The group took another step forward in seeing the project completed when the Somerset Village Board announced that it would assist the library in financing the project during a special session meeting on Thursday, June 6. However, no formal motion was made and the topic will be on the next Finance/Personnel Committee agenda for its June 18 meeting, according to village treasurer Andrea Otto.

As of June 6, the Renew Somerset Library Campaign has raised nearly $1.8 million in pledges and donations to fund the library expansion project. However, some of the money is pledged over a three-year period, so the group was hoping the board would be willing to help finance the project so it could begin as soon as possible.

The Plan Commission, which met prior to the special meeting of the village board, approved the certified survey map for the library expansion, with final approval of the plan to be discussed/approved at the June 18 regular board meeting.

According to the Renew Somerset Library Campaign representatives present, the group selected a company to work on the project in March, following a bid process, but was unable to award the bid. Now, the group is looking for approval from the village board to move forward with the process and start the bid process over again.

The project timeline, according to Renew Somerset Library Campaign members, is extremely tight, given that the project must begin by Aug. 1, 2019, and be completed by February 2020 in order to receive two grants the group was awarded.

Toward the end of the meeting, the Renew Somerset Library Campaign representatives discussed moving the advertising of bids until closer to the June 18 regular meeting date in order to avoid having last minute issues pop up again and derail the project further. It would also give the group more time to work out more project details with the village board and staff prior to final approval.

Village Park use by commercial businesses

The other main topic of the special session on June 6 revolved around the use of Village Park by commercial businesses.

Based on the results of a focus group survey, the village board stated that it believes the citizens of Somerset want to see Village Park cleaned up.

"To me, this discussion isn't about stopping anybody from keeping their business running. To me, this is about what the village and the residents want Village Park to look like in the future," said board president John Melvin. "Our focus groups have talked about wanting tubing to be cleaned up, but they also want the Village Park to be a place they want to go. This may be related to a lot of the antics that have gone on in the past and a lot of developers have come to town and seen a problem with tubing at the intersection of 35 and Main Street.

"And the Village Police Department has had a lot of problems supporting a police presence at this time because of our staffing levels and availability of officers. Also, park ordinance says that there is no alcohol in Village Park. Those are some of the things I've thought about."

River's Edge owner Steve Kaufman said the tubing businesses are working on cleaning up the shores of the Apple River where their tubers float on a weekly basis to keep the river looking nice for everyone who visits. Two of the representatives of the local tubing industry, including Kaufman, said they would be willing to discuss how they can better address the concerns of the village board and the community in regards to the tourists who come to the village for tubing.

"Hopefully we can get to a point where we can bring customers to your new revamped park so they can see your improvements and take part in those improvements, and maybe even think that this is a great place to set up their family," Kaufman said.

However, Apple River Hideaway owner Mike Kappers had a differing view of the situation.

"Is the board still looking to have tourism in Somerset? Or are you guys looking to do away with tourism?" Kappers asked.

Melvin responded by saying that the village is "trying to do something with the river that attracts families, rather than keep the reputation that area currently has." He also stated that "It will take a lot to change that reputation."

"That reputation has been here for years, but shutting down tubing today doesn't mean that reputation will go away. Tubing brings 100,000-plus unique visitors to this town, who then go to the gas stations, go to the bars and cafes ... and all the businesses in town," Kappers said. "Out of those 100,000 unique visitors that come to our town, how many calls do you think the Village Park gets? ... What is an acceptable amount of calls for service to the Village Park?"

To that, Melvin stated that cleaning up the park isn't just about service calls.

"I think it is about people who visit Village Park and say that they can't go down there because people are drunk and naked. That is what we are talking about. If you can't get off the river there, I think that is an acceptable advantage to our community to be able to use the park," Melvin said. "I think we have the right, since we own the property, to say what we want to use it for."

According to a report Kappers received from the Somerset Police Department, there were a total of six calls for service - which include counts of incidents related to anything on the river - to the Village Park in 2018.

Kappers then asked Melvin if he put the "Village Park Use by Commercial Businesses" item on the agenda - to which Melvin responded that it is his responsibility to do so given that he is Village President - and went on to say that he believes it is no secret that John Montpetit has been trying to say that he is going to get Village Park and tubing shut down for the people that get out of the river there.

"It is also no secret that you (John Melvin) are one of his business partners and are invested in Float Rite," Kappers said. "I don't want to go down like a lawsuit type thing for you guys, you and your partnership with him, trying to push us out of something that helps the entire town."

Melvin responded by saying that if Kappers wants that information on the record, he should "state facts instead of conjecture."

"Each of the campgrounds pay a $2,500 user fee for the river that goes toward the limited term employee police officer that works on the weekends. Those officers are taking care of things that have nothing to do with tubing that we are paying for," Kappers said. "We are not saying anything about it, but it is to the point where if you don't want tubing and want me to sell to a developer and get rid of the tubing all together, I can do that if you don't want to do the tubing anymore. There were six calls for service, six incidents down there for thousands and thousands of our customers, tourists that come into town and spend money. If you are saying you don't want us part of the Village Park, let me know now. I have other options."

Trustee Kim Putz said several citizens have had the idea of cleaning up Village Park.

"I think a number of citizens spoke pretty loudly about getting that Village Park in order so it can be user friendly to the residents of the community. That is our goal. I'm not going to tell you to sell your business, but that is our goal," said Putz.

Following the nearly 40-minute discussion, the board moved on from the topic without any action on the agenda item.