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The number of people applying for library cards in Jackson County has doubled since the new library opened this summer.

Jackson’s striking increase in library use in part is a testament to just how low use was before. A dismally undersized library, limited programs and a small collection led to abnormally low per capita use at its former location. In fact, Jackson had the lowest circulation per capita and fewer library card holders per capita compared to surrounding counties — and was well under the state average in those benchmark areas.

When planning for a new library began in earnest four years ago, librarians cautioned the county not to put too much stock in the number of past library users as a yardstick for how big the future library should be. New libraries are like self-fulfilling prophecies, with more users suddenly crawling out of the woodworks as soon as its doors open.

So while it’s no surprise that library use has gone up, no one anticipated it would go up by as much as it has.

Jackson’s has gone up by much more than other counties that have recently built new libraries.

• After building new libraries, Macon County saw only a 15 percent increase in the number of people applying for new library cards, Polk saw 12 percent increase and Transylvania County saw 58 percent — nothing close to the 100 percent increase in Jackson.

• Jackson’s new library has increased by 38 percent in circulation of materials. Compared to Macon’s circulation increase of 17 percent, Transylvania’s by 27 percent and Polk’s by 20 percent.

And, with 28 public computers, computer use is up an amazing 154 percent.

A counter on the front door is also logging a huge increase in the number of library visits. For that stat, Jackson County Head Librarian Dottie Brunette said that it isn’t just people living in Jackson County driving the higher numbers, however, though they obviously are beating a track into the library.

“Daily, we get people in just to look at it,” Brunette said.

 

Insanely popular

The new Jackson County library in Sylva has seen skyrocketing use since it opened this summer. These numbers tell the tale, comparing use between July and November of this year at the new library compared to the same five months of last year in the old library.

                                         Old    New

Items checked out    34,735    48,112

Computer sessions    5,501    14,196

Special programs        78    382

Everyone who has seen and toured Jackson County’s new public library knows that it’s beautiful, but now the state has put an official stamp on that fact.

The library recently won the Outstanding Facility Award for new libraries larger than 26,000 square feet presented by the N.C. Public Libraries Directors Association.

Library patrons last week said they weren’t the least surprised to hear the facility was a state winner when it comes to beauty, functionality and technology.

“I love this library,” said Karen Wall, who was working on her laptop in the reference section one day last week. She was seated in a comfortable chair at a desk near huge windows affording a bird’s eye view of the Plott-Balsams mountain range.

SEE ALSO: New Jackson library a self-fulfilling prophecy

Wall described herself as a grateful library user. She is a voracious reader, one of those people who have two or more books going at a time. Fiction, nonfiction, it matters not just so long as the books involved are captivating.

“There’s a joy for me to be able to come here,” Wall said, gesturing toward the view.

That sentiment holds true for Becky Foxx of Sylva, too. Foxx’s one complaint is that the books aren’t as clearly labeled, by topics, as they were in the old library on Main Street. She was searching near the audio section for spiritual and self-help books, which were located several shelves from where Foxx actually was hunting. With 5,500 linear feet of shelving capacity — over one-mile of shelving if stretched out end to end — Foxx was finding navigation at the new county library a bit of a challenge.

That one irritant aside, Foxx loves her library. Like Wall, she said it was well worth every penny spent despite some grumbling over the price tag in certain quarters.

Jackson County’s library towers over Sylva — 107 steps up from Main Street — attached to the back of the historic courthouse complex. The new library cost $8 million, a project that also included renovating the historic courthouse as an auditorium and community meeting space.

The Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. The cost per square foot was $282, including construction, landscaping, site improvements, architect and consultant fees and the furniture and equipment.

The librarian accept the facilities award last month in Greensboro where she presented a PowerPoint slideshow about the building at a showcase of the state awards given for facilities, programs, staff development and service innovation.

McMillan, Pazdan, Smith Architecture designed the library for Jackson County.

If there’s been one major challenge for Jackson County’s new library, it’s been parking. There just isn’t enough space on the 2.8-acre site, at least close-by, to meet demand.

There are only 73 parking spaces on top of the hill. To save those spots for library visitors, employees park in a lot down below and hoof it up the hill either from a small parking lot on Keener Street or from Mark Watson Park. The county recently improved a trail up leading the back side of the hill from Mark Watson Park and added a handrail to make the route more friendly.

Renovating the old library on Main Street in Sylva for a new police department is on something of a hiatus until a new town board convenes.

The town board will get a new member following this month’s elections. Lynda Sossoman will replace current town Commissioner Ray Lewis. Sossoman said Monday that she fully supports the renovation of the old library for a town police department.

Town leaders must identify where the estimated $700,000 needed for the job will come from, interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said.

“The next thing we would want is to get an architect to do detailed plans — but (commissioners) are not there, yet,” he said.

Until then, the 15-member town police — counting only fulltime employees — will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street. The officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.

Jackson County owned the old library, but agreed to a property swap at the town’s request earlier this year. The county gave Sylva the old library building on Main Street, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.

As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building instead of being held at the police department.

Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence by town police on Main Street. In addition to the prospect of having the department located physically there, a new police officer was recently assigned to foot patrols downtown.

Jackson County commissioners won’t allow alcohol to be served during private functions at the newly renovated historic courthouse and library.

Library supporters have been marketing the venue as an ideal spot for receptions, weddings and other functions as a way to raise extra money for the library. Not being able to serve alcohol could make the facility less attractive to private groups.

But county commissioners feared a slippery slope.

“If we open the door and allow one particular facility, I believe you’ll get additional requests,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week.

The county is in the process of crafting a lease for the library building, which is county-owned but run by the Fontana Regional Library system. The alcohol issue had to be settled for the lease to move forward.

In a moment of absolute and somewhat rare unanimity, commissioners voted against allowing alcohol at the library as a county-owned building. Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers, said he’d recently received two requests that alcoholic beverages be allowed at Albert Carlton Library during events there, too — offered as evidence that a flood of requests could follow if the alcoholic-beverage door was cracked open.

County Attorney Jay Coward said the libraries, as well as other entities using county buildings, had long operated under handshake agreements.

“We are trying to formalize these leases … so everybody understands what the ground rules are,” Wooten said.

Chairman Jack Debnam said he objected to allowing alcoholic beverages to be served at the new library for two reasons.

“The library is competing against the private sector if they are leasing the facility and serving alcohol. I don’t think we need to get in that part of it,” he said. “And, second, where do we stop? What if they wanted to serve alcohol at the Golden Age Center? Suppose they want to serve alcohol over here at the baseball fields one day? Where do we stop?”

Commissioner Joe Cowan said that concerned him, too.

“This brings in the whole aspect of public schools,” Cowan said, adding that he also felt uncomfortable about the liability issue.

Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.

The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.

For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.


Part 1: Music by Ian Moore Song and Dance Bluegrass Ensemble, introductions, speaker Matt Tooni
Part 2: Music, speakers George Frizell and William Shelton
Part 3: Thomas Raine Crowe reads from new book; Barbara Duncan speaks and sings; Brent Martin speaks
Part 4: Robert Johnson speaks; Panel Discussion begins with Keith Flynn, George Ellison, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, Charles Frazier
Part 5: Panel Discussion continues
Part 6: Panel Discussion is completed; Music by Ian Moore & Co.; Credits

 

Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:

• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.

Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.

The parking crunch at Jackson County’s new library in Sylva has largely eased, thanks to a new sidewalk that allows employees and exercise-minded readers to park farther away and walk safely.

The library opened earlier this summer.  It is housed in a large addition to the newly renovated historic courthouse that dominates Sylva from its strategic position on a hill above town. The new library has been the toast of the town, generally lauded except for a spate of complaints about a shortage of parking spaces within the cramped footprint where it was built.

Also helping the parking cause are library and county workers, who are now officially doing what many were opting to do previously out of courtesy alone — parking away from the library to free-up as many parking spaces for patrons as possible.

“No one has complained directly to me lately about how there is ‘no parking’ at the library,” head Librarian Dottie Brunette said late last week.

The library employees are stashing their cars at Bicentennial Park below the building, and hoofing it up Keener Street via a new sidewalk the town helped build. The county also has worked to improve the access from the nearby 10-acre Mark Watson Park, located on west Main Street, where library parking is available to those willing to walk up a set of stairs.

“I didn’t have any trouble finding a parking space,” said Laura Wright, a visitor from Virginia who drove to the library as a scenic destination at the behest of local tourism officials. “And, the courthouse is lovely.”

A dire space crunch for Sylva’s police officers has been solved.

Jackson County will give the old library building on Main Street to the town for a new police department. In return, Sylva will give the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.

“One hand washes the other,” Commissioner Charles Elder said in summing up the deal. “Maybe some people will think we are giving too much for a lot less from the town, but it’s not just for (Sylva’s) benefit.”

The old public library has an appraised tax value of $796,000; the former chamber of commerce building was valued at $157,560. County commissioners met with town board members Monday to discuss the trade and voted unanimously to make the deal. Commissioner Joe Cowan was absent.

Town police are strapped for space in the current police department on Allen Street. Fourteen full-time officers (soon to be 15) and three auxiliary officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.

“We’re not trading apples for apples, I recognize that,” Commissioner Mark Jones said before endorsing the deal as ultimately beneficial to both parties involved. “Let’s help each other out.”

Commissioner Doug Cody said he had some reservations, primarily because he’d prefer to see more retail business on Main Street.

“But I think we can probably work things out since we don’t have anyone beating our doors down to get that building,” Cody said.

County Manager Chuck Wooten confirmed Jackson County hasn’t received any inquiries from anyone interested in buying the old building. The library in June moved to a new location at the historic courthouse overlooking Main Street.

“We need the space, bad,” said Harold Hensley, a Sylva town council member, who added that the swap would also be good for the town and county’s overall relationship.

Chris Matheson, a former district attorney who sits on the town board, confirmed that prisoners would not be detained in that building. As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building, she said.

Matheson said Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence on Main Street by town police. In addition to the prospect of now having the department located physically there, council members also decided recently to hire a new police officer assigned to foot patrols downtown.

Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, in a follow-up interview after the workshop, said there are already rough blueprints drafted for how the new police department would be built. She said the town’s public works department, also currently strapped for space, would probably move into the vacated police department.

Police Chief Davis Woodard described he and his officers as “just tickled,” and emphasized his gratitude for the united backing of town commissioners in helping the police department gain more space.

In the do-you-remember, they-were-right-after-all category, the enormous popularity of Jackson County’s new library has meant finding parking at the renovated courthouse and library addition can sometimes prove a real pain.

So much so, Assistant Librarian Liz Gregg has taken to parking off the hill and walking to work, even while wearing dress shoes and slogging through wet grass. A minor inconvenience for her, she said, that frees up one additional parking space nearer the building for library patrons.

“Besides, I’m here for eight-plus hours. I need that exercise,” Gregg reasoned.

The only real problem for Gregg and others who are willing to walk to the library? The stairs from Mark Watson Park, one of the major sources of extra parking that is located below the courthouse on the backside of the hill, are not in very good shape.

“The steps are kind of crumbly,” Gregg said.

Enter the board of county commissioners, which is now considering what best it should do. County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners last month that to officially reopen the stairs from Mark Watson Park “we’ll have to put in a railing, and assess other possible repairs.”

That assessment is under way.

Also expected to help ease the parking strain is a continuing slowdown in construction work. Those final fixes that always seem to surface with a new project should continue to diminish, meaning fewer workers’ trucks and more patron parking, said head Librarian Dottie Brunette.

Air conditioning has been an ongoing problem, as have lightening strikes and simple electric surges that knock out the computer circuit boards, requiring workmen’s services.

“We’re the highest point on the hill,” Brunette said. “It’s like I’ve told people, we’ve got Lady Justice on top of the courthouse with her arm up in the air just beckoning for it.”

One day, for undetermined reasons, each punch of an elevator button triggered the security gates to sound. That made for an interesting work atmosphere, the librarian said.

But overall, the opening has been gone smoothly, Brunette said. The new library celebrated its grand opening last month. It was forced to shutdown entirely for one day after a waterline break, but otherwise, the library has been open for business when promised.

In all, 402 brand new library cards have been issued, and the library (including the grand opening celebration and subsequent programs) had 8,184 visitors in 20 days — an average daily attendance of 409 people. That compares with average daily attendance of 300 to 350 in the old library on Main Street.

“Before we ever moved up here, there were folks for various reasons and from various points of view who felt that the parking would be more limited than we would like it to be,” Brunette said.

There are two actual parking lots at the library, plus some additional spaces right out front and down off the hill.

Supporters of the courthouse site wanted a library within walking distance of downtown. Putting it there on the hill overlooking Sylva, they said, would avoid sprawl and help keep the downtown area vibrant, and give the iconic but vacant historic courthouse a community purpose.

From the get-go, however, the community and the then board of commissioners knew the site wouldn’t be perfect. There is no room for future expansion. The road winding up the courthouse hill is steep and narrow. And, of course, there is that lack of parking.

A group who wanted the library built at the Jackson Plaza touted the two-acre tract on the outskirts of town as being easier to work with, and pointed at the time to its ample parking as one highlight that should be considered.

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said he was as surprised as anyone to learn that his name would be included on a bronze plaque destined to hang on the newly renovated courthouse and library complex. So was his fellow board member, Charles Elders, who noted last week that frankly it seemed kind of peculiar, even a tad inappropriate, to him.

That’s because during last November’s campaigns, the two Republicans and Jack Debnam, an Independent-but-conservative candidate for commission chairman, were rather free in their criticisms about expenses connected with the $8 million renovation of the old courthouse and construction of a new library annex in Sylva.

Cody was careful to note that he didn’t actually campaign directly against the new library — which, in fact, he didn’t, but he frequently questioned the cost.

Debnam said he truly couldn’t care less whether there’s a plaque or not — the library belongs to the citizens of Jackson County, he said, not to government officials.

“I don’t even know why we have to get into this self-glorification,” Debnam said.

Be that as it may, how then did it happen that two boards of commissioners are destined to have their names listed on the bronze plaque? It will list eight individuals from two Jackson County commission boards, an odd merging of the very men who waged war in one of the most bitter political battles this community can remember.

When it was done, Democrats William Shelton, Tom Massie and Brian McMahan were gone; Elders, Cody and Debnam were in.

Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan are twice designated on the future plaque, because they were and are seated on both the former and current boards. The two men were not up for election last November.

“Nothing is simple in life when it comes to local politics,” County Manager Chuck Wooten wrote Architect Donnie Love in an email dated Jan. 24, which he made available to The Smoky Mountain News. “I suspect with a new board in place when the library opens they will also want to have a presence on the plaque. I’ll talk to the chairman and let you know.”

This followed a query by Love about who should make the plaque, and whether the new county manager was “comfortable with the wording, spelling etc.”

Well, no, it turned out he wasn’t. Wooten, in addition to adding the extra commissioners, removed former County Manager Ken Westmoreland’s name. It should be pointed out that he did not add his own name, either. Wooten said he simply didn’t like the idea of having a county manager, any county manager, on the plaque.

The changes did not cost the county any taxpayer money, Wooten said.

Dottie Brunette, head librarian in Jackson County, declined to comment on the library plaque, or on public speculations she was offered a Faustian deal: agree to the names being added, or risk losing library funding. Wooten flatly denied such a conversation took place.

He was, however, clearly sensitive about talk in the community concerning the plaque leading up to the library’s grand opening. The day before, on June 10, Wooten again emailed Love, querying him about the not-yet-delivered plaque:

“Could you determine when he anticipates delivery or should I pursue ordering the plaque from someone else? I’m having a temporary sign printed for this weekend to head off rumors about excluding the prior board of commissioners from a permanent sign. You know how local politics can be.”

Mary Selzer, who helped head a fundraising campaign for Friends of the Library, said Shelton, Massie and Jones were “the three commissioners who had the vision, and who got the project approved and funded, working with then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland.

“Without their commitments and hard work, the courthouse would still be standing empty, and we would still be having discussion about where to put a library in Jackson County.”

Massie and Shelton declined to comment.

The cost to the county — and ultimately the taxpayers — for the new library complex was approximately $7.1 million. The total project budget was more than $8.6 million, but the Friends raised the $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment plus an additional $300,000 to cover campaign-fundraising expenses and to expand the library’s collection.

Selzer added in a delicate step-on-nobody’s toes straddle, “the current board of commissioners did allot money to keep the current level of services at 45 hours.”

Staff, too, was added. The library saw funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000 under the new board of commissioners. The library, Selzer noted, was the only county department that actually received a financial increase.

The delivery date for the new plaque is unknown. So, exactly, is where on the courthouse/library it will hang once it arrives.

Jackson County’s new public library in Sylva kicked off in grand style, with dozens of people on hand to celebrate the grand opening on Saturday.

The library complex and the renovated courthouse cost $8 million, with the Friends of the Library raising another $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library.

The achievement, said Doug Cody, vice chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, stands as a visible symbol on the hill above Sylva as a “credit to the spirit of this community.”

Former Commissioner William Shelton, who played a critical role in helping keep the library in Sylva’s downtown area and in approving the needed funding, shied from taking much of the credit.

“It was a privilege to me to be at the right place at the right time,” Shelton said.

Shelton posited the courthouse and new library complex as a symbol of something wonderful, a place where “history, our culture and our quest for knowledge” merge.

The Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, The old courtroom was converted into an approximately 2,500-square-foot auditorium available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.

A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.

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