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Wednesday, 20 April 2016 15:05

Haywood leaders asked to endorse Waynesville library renovation

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haywoodPreparation and planning for a $6 million renovation and expansion of the Waynesville library have been playing out behind the scenes for more than a year, laying critical groundwork in advance of a community fundraising campaign that’s about to go public.

A broad coalition of library supporters has spent the past year studying the deficits and shortcomings of the outdated Waynesville library and developing a plan to overhaul it.

Consultants were hired, surveys conducted, a slogan developed, and an architect engaged to come up with concept drawings. A box of “I Y my library” buttons is even sitting in the corner of Library Director Sharon Woodrow’s office ready to give out.

“We have done a lot of work over the past year-and-a-half and want to take it to the next step in the process,” Woodrow said. 

More than a dozen community members involved with the library campaign appeared before county commissioners last week to share their preliminary plans and seek the county’s endorsement. 

The coalition of library supporters hopes to break ground on the project in early 2018 — but the timeline is contingent on funding. Library supporters have pledged to raise $2 million for the project, with hopes that the county will fund the remaining $4 million.

County leaders signaled their tacit support of the project in theory.

“I have been a big supporter of the library for a long time. I hope you are able to have a beautifully successful campaign,” said County Manager Ira Dove.

But county leaders said they would need more time to analyze and vet the proposal before making a formal commitment. 

“Do not take this as a lack of enthusiasm for the project. I just wonder if the time frame is a little bit ambitious,” Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said.

After hearing the library’s presentation, other commissioners chimed in that they, too, support the library expansion in theory, but couldn’t commit on the spot.

“You have to give us a tad bit of time to digest it,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said.

Library proponents appearing before commissioners last week were hoping for a vote of confidence and a pledge to help fund the project.

“We need to have some sense of what you guys are thinking,” said David McCracken, a spokesperson for the library campaign who serves on the library foundation board.

McCracken said the board planned to launch its public fundraising campaign this summer, but can “pull back their fishing pole” for a while if need be.

“We can wait until you are more comfortable,” McCracken said.

“It’s not that we are uncomfortable,” Swanger clarified, suggesting it’s not a matter of if but merely when the county would provide funding. “You end up with a better product if you move forward methodically.”

In the meantime, Swanger said the library was free to launch its campaign whenever it wanted. In that regard, commissioners gave the library coalition their blessing to start fundraising even if they weren’t ready to give the library a hard-and-fast commitment to a 2018 ground breaking.

The library coalition ultimately left the meeting in limbo on what its next move should be, however.

In a follow-up interview, Woodrow said it would be difficult to launch a fundraising campaign in earnest without a more formal commitment on the county’s part.

“We need a tangible agreement that we can count on to be able to write grants and engage the community to fully move this project forward,” Woodrow said. 

Woodrow said the library campaign committee wants to start courting large donors and grants given the $2 million fundraising goal. But the project will appear hypothetical without a formal pledge from the county to fund the remaining $4 million.

“We want to keep going. We don’t want to lose the momentum we have already started,” Woodrow said in a follow-up interview. “In order for it to be successful we need a commitment from the commissioners.”

Commissioners had gone out of their way to impress upon the library supporters that they valued the importance of the library in the community.

“I know how important the library is,” Commissioner Bill Upton replied. “We need to find $4 million at some point in time.”

The question, however, is how soon the county could make that commitment, Upton said. A construction loan on the justice center will be paid off by the end of 2017, freeing up $1.5 million in annual payments that could be applied toward other projects at that point.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley also chimed in.

“It is amazing how many people use the library. I understand how important the library is,” Ensley said.

“The library is an economic driver, too. People move here because we have a great library. The library is a shining star.”

Despite not getting the exact answer they were hoping for, the library supporters said they appreciated the commissioners’ willingness to continue the conversation.

“I want you to know that your support in our efforts are really appreciated,” said Christine Mallette, the co-chair of the library’s fundraising campaign.

“I wanted to say thank you to all of you for at least in opening the door to us,” Woodrow added. 

Woodrow is hopeful that continued conversations with county leadership over the next few months will be fruitful. 

“I believe that the county commissioners are community oriented and will take the information we have given them and help us move our campaign forward quickly,” Woodrow said in a follow-up interview.

Sorrells commended the library coalition for coming to the table with a commitment to raise a portion of the project cost.

“Anytime you have community buy-in and the community is willing to put some skin in the game, it makes it easier for us to look at,” Sorrells said. “A good starting point is to educate the community on the importance of the library.”

Woodrow replied that the library already enjoys broad public support.

“The community I don’t think is going to be an issue,” Woodrow said. “We see the needs on a day in and day out basis.”

Woodrow said she also wants to keep the wheels in motion so the volunteer power amassed behind the project doesn’t fizzle out in a prolonged holding pattern.

“We have the momentum going, we have volunteers in place that are fully committed to a campaign,” Woodrow said.

Three organizations are poised to work in tandem on the campaign, including the library foundation, the Friends of the Library and the library board of trustees.

The library foundation has spent $30,000 to date hiring consultants to conduct a space needs assessment and feasibility study, as well as an architect to develop a concept drawing. 

From the county’s perspective, the legwork is only a starting point, however.

“This project is still very, very, early in the process,” Dove said.

If and when the county endorses the renovation project, it will choose its own architect, which may or may not be the same one hired by the library coalition to develop the preliminary concept drawing.

The legwork was not for naught, however. The visual aid was critical to effectively make their pitch and advance the conversation to the stage it is now. The library coalition also needed something concrete to base a cost estimate on before going to the county with a formal ask. 

“We had to start somewhere — it was a chicken or egg kind of thing,” McCracken said.

Now, county staff will work with library supporters to vet the preliminary project plans and decide where to go from here.

“We will be working with the library to take a good look at the facility they are conceptualizing and the needs they have,” Dove said in a follow-up interview. “We are grateful for the work of the people who have volunteered a lot of time and resources to the library so far to help bring about awareness.”

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