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Big dreams, but no money: A new library in Swain searches for funding

fr swainlibraryA day earlier the room was full. Wall-to-wall children and snakes.

“That was in this room,” said Swain County Librarian Jeff Delfield.

But now the long room is mostly empty and noticeably large. There’s some chairs leaned against the wall. A lonely laminating machine waits near the door.

This is the Swain library’s all-purpose room. Whatever’s happening, it’s probably happening in here. It’s pretty much the only available space.

“We do movies in this room,” Delfield said, motioning around the empty room. “We do storytime in this room.”

The room is much too large for some needs. Like tutoring sessions. Or, an interview with the local newspaper.

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To make the room seem somehow appropriately sized for the occasion, Delfield has set up two tables instead of one. He and Fontana Regional Library System Director Karen Wallace sit on one side of the adjoined tables.

“At first I had one table and then I said ‘Let’s put out two tables, let’s take up some space here,” Delfield smiled from the other side of an expanse two-tables deep.

Delfield dreams of a day when the library can offer various sized rooms for the variety of things that happen at a library. It’s one of the many reasons he’d like to see a new library built in Swain.

“That is one thing, if — scratch the ‘if’ — when we get a new library, [we need] a new meeting space and smaller rooms,” Delfield said. 

“Having a variety of different spaces has really been a popular thing in our libraries,” agreed Wallace.

But right now a new library, or smaller rooms or more computer stations, remain just a dream. While land has been donated for the construction of a new library, the money to actually build it has been scarce. 

And Delfield’s been looking for a long time. When he first arrived on the job nine years ago, a pitch was being made for a new library in Swain.

“Within the first couple of weeks I was in a county commission meeting,” the librarian recalled. “We were talking about it then.”


‘A handshake and a smile’

The Mariana Black Library in Bryson City sits on a quiet and shady corner. Across the street is the Yum-Yum Chinese diner, and beyond that the heart of downtown Bryson City. 

“It’s really a 1960s library,” Delfield said. 

Along the library’s edge is a handful of parking spaces. On busy days Delfield takes pictures of the cars being forced to park illegally wherever they can — like too many puppies suckling their exhausted mother — in order to document the lack of parking, which was one of the issues raised in the Dubberly Report.

The Dubberly Report is a needs assessment that consultant Ron Dubberly conducted for the Swain library in 2010. It arose out of public input sessions and pointed out the library’s needs, primarily that it needed to modernize and grow to accommodate Swain’s 21st century population. 

It covered the practical, but was also a bit pie-in-the-sky. Without limitations, what could a library of the future be?

“His approach is ‘Think Big,’” Delfield said. “We had crazy stuff, like IMAX-size screens and a swimming pool. It went that far.”

No one is seriously wanting an IMAX or swimming pools. But a case is consistently being made for a new library that will feature private study rooms and a teen reading area. A case is being made for a new library that also serves as a quasi community center or local gathering hub.

“In many ways our libraries are becoming community centers,” Wallace said. “Lots of different uses.”

Just this month the pitch for such a place was made to community leaders. Again. The reception was, as always, polite.

“Everyone to my face, with a handshake and a smile, is saying ‘I’m behind this, it’s needed.’ And it is needed,” Delfield said. “No one is picking up this Dubberly Report and saying, ‘nah, this is bunk.’”

But neither town nor county leaders are willing to commit any cash for the library.


‘Everybody knows we need a new one’

Swain is on a journey that sister counties within the Fontana Regional Library System have taken before. Both Jackson and Macon saw new libraries in recent years. 

In each instance, library supporters raised the funds needed for the interiors — like furniture and light fixtures — while the counties funded the construction of the buildings, or in Jackson’s case the renovation and expansion of its historic courthouse in Sylva. 

“In Macon there were some little boys who brought their allowance money in,” recalled Wallace. “What we got from those boys was not so much, but what they inspired was huge.”

Library leaders would like to see a similar formula in Swain. They feel they can fundraise the estimated million-plus dollars for the interior fixtures and would like to see local government fund the nearly $5 million to build a new library.

And there’s really very little debate about the need for the library to grow.

“Everybody knows we need a new one,” said Janis Wright, a Mariana Black Library board member. 

Local officials don’t contest the case the library has been making for years.

“They all have indicated their approval and recognition for a need,” said Chester Bartlett, chair of the library board.

But, theoretical support doesn’t translate into actual support. 

“We  support that,” explained Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, “but we’re not behind that, putting money behind it, getting it done.”

Plus, points out Swain County Manager Kevin King, the landscape and dynamics in Swain are different than those in Jackson and Macon. For starters, Swain is flush with public land but short on private property — meaning, there are a lot fewer property tax dollars to work with than in other counties.

“Everybody’s trying to compare us to Jackson and Macon counties,” King said. “We don’t have the money that Jackson and Macon have.”

And there is a concern that a new, expanded library will carry with it an increase in long-term, operational costs associated with the facility. More lights to burn, more landscaping to tend to, additional staff.

“It’ll be open longer, they’ll probably need more staff, you know, the whole nine yards,” King said.


‘Don’t get me wrong’

Everyone loves a library. But love doesn’t pay the bills. Not in Swain County.

“We don’t have taxpayer money to do that. We support it, don’t get us wrong,” said Monteith, assessing the library’s chances of securing funding from the county. “I don’t know if the money would ever appear.”

That’s been the county’s position for the entirety of this years-long conversation. Yes, a new library would be nice. Yes, it is needed. But, no money is available.

“We don’t have $3 million hanging out anywhere,” said King. 

Earlier this year, property was donated by Don and Toni Davidson for the placement of a new library. It’s 9 acres, more than is needed, a short distance from downtown Bryson City. The Davidsons also kickstarted the library’s fundraising efforts with a $50,000 donation. 

That helps — it’s what King calls a “critical part” — but doesn’t make funding a new library any more palatable to county officials.

“It doesn’t make it doable,” said Swain County Commissioner Steve Moon. “It takes a lot of money to construct a new building.”

King said that if commissioners felt that a new library was a “benefit to the community” they would “figure out how to fund it.” That doesn’t appear likely any time soon. 

“I hope we can find the money, but right now we just don’t have it,” said Moon. “Right now the only way is to float a bond or a tax increase and that’s not even something I want to talk about.”

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