Jackson County library taking shapeWritten by Quintin Ellison
The completion date for Jackson County’s new library is just three months away, but the likelihood the project really will be finished then isn’t that great, construction Manager David Cates of Canton-based Brantley Construction acknowledged late last week.
Additional construction work, coupled with possible weather delays as this its-not-supposed-to-be-a-bad winter starts out with a battering of severe cold and snow, probably forebodes additional delay. A December target date was missed, too, because of poor weather conditions — 62 days of measurable rainfall in the first 90 building days — and complications with restoring the courthouse’s crowning point, the cupola.
The new library is being built as a 22,000-square-foot addition to the historic courthouse, which towers above Sylva on a small mountaintop. The courthouse itself will be devoted to providing community space to Jackson County residents, including an approximately 2,500-square-foot courtroom that will be available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society will be provided in the old courthouse building.
The cupola is back atop the courthouse now, and a re-polished Lady Justice is shining brightly nearby. Inside, the library itself is taking shape. Friends of the Jackson County Main Library led a tour last week to showoff progress and detail the work taking place.
The future Jackson County Public Library is, in a word, gorgeous. Apart from a few libraries located at major universities (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill comes to mind), it is doubtful any other community in the Southeast will boast of a facility as impressive as this one.
“I’m a little worried it is going to be so precious people will be uncomfortable,” said June Smith, president of the Jackson County Friends of the Main Library. “But I think and hope people will grow into it.”
Jackson County’s future library hasn’t been without controversy. Getting to this point took a decade of debate and a year of planning. There were arguments about the location, the cost and the need.
Budget disagreements concerning future library funding are likely to heat up again in the near future. Particularly since voters gave three of the project’s primary supporters — Democrats Brian McMahan, Tom Massie and William Shelton — the boot during last month’s election. Their replacements — officially-Independent-but-GOP-supported Chairman Jack Debnam and Republicans Charles Elders and Doug Cody — cited costs associated with the library project as prime examples of fiscal waste during their political campaigns.
A passion for libraries
“There are people in this community who are very passionate about libraries, and one of the most important roles the Friends’ plays is that of library advocate,” said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the Friends of the Library committee, which raised more than $1.8 million since May 2008 in donations and grants to furnish and outfit the new facility.
To that end, Selzer and other Friends of the Library members join Jackson County Librarian Dottie Brunette in monitoring — and being visible at — the bi-monthly meetings of the county’s commissioners.
Setzer, who worked as an investment banker, said she hopes to help be able to educate the county’s new commissioners on the important role played by the library.
The three newcomers on the board join Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan. They each have two years remaining on their four-year terms.
“They all are business people,” Setzer said optimistically, “and they like numbers and figures. That’s my background, too.”
In the three-county Fontana Regional Library System, made up of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, Jackson County historically almost always ranks last in terms of per-capita funding. This even though the previous Democratic-controlled board of commissioners was considered supportive of its libraries, with one each in Sylva and Cashiers.
Swain County — thanks to a low-taxing ability because of the sheer amount of federal holdings within the county’s boundaries, a number approaching about 85 percent — has recently overtaken Jackson as the lowest-ranking funded county in the Fontana System, Setzer said. Swain County is just now beginning to consider whether to build a new library of its own.
Setzer said she believes the massive community response to fundraising for Jackson County’s new library speaks volumes about residents’ commitment for libraries in general. She said the Friends group would need to continue money-raising ventures even once it opens.
That ongoing commitment to fundraising does not, however, abrogate the county’s responsibility to pay for general operating needs, Setzer said, such as overall building maintenance and staffing.
45,000 items to move
Betty Screven, a volunteer with Friends of the Library, said great pains have been taken to retain the original feel of the historic courthouse, which dates to 1914.
Architects and interior designers used historic records to guide restoration efforts. The building, gutted during the 1970s, had almost no original features. So the team instead focused on the Madison County Courthouse, which Jackson County’s courthouse was modeled on when the county seat was moved from Webster to Sylva.
The old courthouse and the addition are connected by a glass atrium. This will serve as the main entrance into the complex.
Librarian Brunette said there would be about 45,000 items that must be moved from the current Sylva library — located near the base of the hill the new library and old county courthouse sit astride. How exactly to move the books, CDs and other library material haven’t been decided yet. Other county employees, with permission of commissioners, helped when the contents of Macon County’s library was moved a few years ago.
New items are being purchased for Jackson County’s new library, as well. But “we don’t want all the shelves full, you want to be able to grow,” Brunette said.
There are gaps in the library collection the librarian would like to see filled. The Cherokee collection is not what it should be, though Ben Bridgers, a Sylva lawyer, plans to donate many historical and scholarly Cherokee books to the library, she said. Brunette also wants more materials for young adults.