Most people assumed the location for a new library was a done deal. Following years of debate over a location, county commissioners two years ago bought a site beside Jackson Plaza, a strip mall on the outskirts of town, for $210,000. The town of Sylva chipped in half the cost.
The project stalled out after that, but it seemed only a matter of time until the county would give architects a green light to start designing a building. The other two site contenders — the historic courthouse in downtown Sylva and a joint library with Southwestern Community College — seemed put to rest for good.
All that has changed, however. Two newly elected county commissioners say they would like to re-examine potential library sites, including the historic courthouse. Commissioners Tom Massie and William Shelton say they aren’t married to the putting the county’s library at Jackson Plaza site.
While the county already owns the Jackson Plaza site, it already owns the historic courthouse, too. The county can’t let the old courthouse on the hill crumble to the ground, Massie said. They’ll have to spend money in some form or fashion anyway to rehabilitate and maintain the landmark building.
“If we are going to have to spend money maintaining it, I would just as soon have the public be able to use it,” Massie said. “The reality is right now it is a non-performing asset. If we could use it for something like this that keeps it a focal point, then it becomes a performing asset again for the county.”
Shelton holds a similar view.
“Right now I have an open mind. I don’t think it is necessarily too late to reconsider a site,” Shelton said.
Shelton would like to see more unity behind whatever site the county ultimately chooses.
“The community was still split,” Shelton said. “There has to be an idea that both sides of that fence can get behind.”
Advocates of keeping the library downtown rather than a strip mall off a highway exit ramp on the outskirts of town will likely be ecstatic over the news. But Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan is less than enthusiastic about rehashing a new library location, however.
“Absolutely not. As far as I’m concerned, we have a library site,” McMahan said.
McMahan was a commissioner when the county bought the Jackson Plaza site. The site was chosen by a selection committee comprised of county and Sylva officials and library users.
“The committee looked at several possible sites. In the end the committee chose the Jackson Plaza site,” McMahan said. “That was determined to be the best option.”
For some, it was a compromise more than a first choice, however. One site in the running was the campus of Southwestern Community College. Some felt strongly the library should remain the heart of Sylva, preferably right downtown, even prompting the formation of an advocacy group to that aim called Build Our Library Downtown. Jackson Plaza might be on the outskirts of town, but the college campus was even farther out.
Ultimately, some on the selection committee agreed to the Jackson Plaza site simply to keep the library from ending up on the community college campus.
“That was a compromise location,” said Maurice Moody, a Sylva town board member and appointee on the library board. “That’s a little further from Main Street than I would prefer. I would like it to be a within a short walk of Main Street.”
Moody said he would prefer the historic courthouse.
With Commissioner Massie and Shelton saying one thing, and Commissioner McMahan saying another, it will be interesting to see how the library location plays out. McMahan said the historic courthouse is incompatible for a library, citing renovation costs, less parking, structural and mechanical issues.
“There’s a whole lot of negatives,” McMahan said.
Shelton and Massie said they want to see an official architectural assessment of the historic courthouse before jumping to conclusions about whether it’s realistic.
“We need more information to decide whether this is a logical site or illogical site,” Massie said. Massie said the historic courthouse doesn’t have to hold the entire library. An addition could be built to house the stacks of books — whose weight could otherwise pose a problem for the old courthouse floors. The historic courthouse could be used for reading rooms, meeting rooms, an auditorium, computer labs, local history displays and all the other functions libraries typically serve.
Don’t get left out
With the location of a new library apparently back up for discussion, the community will be invited to weigh in on library sites as well. A community planning process is underway to solicit input on what the public would like to see in their new library — including the location. (see story on page 7).
A consultant leading the process asked a roomful of library patrons to talk about potential sites during a brainstorming session last week. Most were timid at first, presuming a site was already decided on since the county has already bought land beside Jackson Plaza for that purpose.
Several people were surprised when Commissioner Tom Massie, who was at the meeting, piped up to the contrary.
“I’d like to see utilization of existing structures,” Massie said.
Massie was clearly refering to the historic courthouse. Before long, the original three site contenders — the historic courthouse, Jackson Plaza and Southwestern Community College — were being discussed by the group. A diversity of opinion soon became apparent, with a lack of concensus even among the Jackson County library board and the non-profit Friends of the Library, with members of each gravitating toward different sites.
Sandra Burbank, a member of both the library board and Friends of the Library, said the community planning process will hopefully bring everyone together in the end.
“I think this is a great process,” Burbank said. “I am really placing a lot of my hopes in it. I am excited we have an inclusive process where nobody will be left out. I want to see something the community can take pride in.”
A sense of pride and consensus will be particularly important when it comes to raising private donations to help with the cost of a new library.
If the commuity genuinely wants to reconsider a building joint library with Southwestern Community College, they’ll have to move quick.
The college will begin designing its new library by summer, according to Dr. Cecil Groves, president of the college.
“We are probably four months away from selecting an architect,” Groves said.
If the county wants in, the college will need to know. Groves said it would be up to the board of trustees whether a joint library with the county is still on the table. The college likely got more than it bargained for during the heated controversy over a new library location three years ago. Groves said the college never intended to steal the library away from downtown. They had been approached by the county about the prospect of a joint library and simply agreed.
“The last thing we want to do is offer something the community doesn’t want,” Groves said. “We thought it was just something generous to talk about. The only purpose was if it was to benefit the public and beneficial to us.”
Meanwhile, the county has a $25,000 contract with an architect ready to start designing a building at any time. The architect is on hold, however, pending the community planning process.
Massie said the community process led by the professional library consultant in coming months will be important.
“What we really haven’t done to this point is try to build some consensus in Jackson County as to what would work best,” Massie said. “I’m not married to any of these sites. I am willing to look at all three of the alternatives.”