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Swain library project hits roadblock

Swain library project hits roadblock

As much work as they’ve put into planning and fundraising, the Marianna Black Library Campaign Planning Committee still can’t get Swain County commissioners on board with the financial commitment that comes along with a new library.

Members from the new library planning committee and architect Keith Hargrove presented their latest vision for the new library to commissioners last week. The last presentation the committee brought to the county in August 2016 was met with hesitation, and commissioners asked them to go back to the drawing board to reduce the size and cost of the project.

“Since last fall we’ve been working very hard to put together a well thought-out comprehensive plan for the library,” committee member Ellen Snodgrass told the board. “We listened to your concerns about the size and space for the Fontana Regional Library staff that’s always been housed in our facility.”

Since receiving a land donation specifically for a new library in 2014, the committee has been working toward making that dream a reality. The donors — Don and Toni Davidson — donated 9 acres on Fontana Road with the stipulation that a new library must be constructed within seven years or the property will revert back to them.

With three and a half years remaining on the timeline, the library committee is working on meeting its $1 million fundraising goal, but members say it’s nearly impossible to get larger donations without a concrete financial commitment and a project timeline from the county.

Snodgrass told commissioners they basically started the design process over in an attempt to get the size and cost down. The design presented last year was a $7.2 million project to build a 34,000-square-foot facility. The plan presented last week reduces the size by 25 percent to about 25,000 square feet.

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The new design includes a computer lab, community room, conference room and restrooms that can be accessed by the public after library hours. An open floor plan in the center of the building will house the fiction, non-fiction, large print books and periodicals. The perimeter of the building includes a designated teen area, study rooms, a children’s area, a large room for indoor programming, space for outdoors programs and staff offices.

Commissioners also expressed concern last year about paying the additional cost to Mariana Black Library staff. Mariana Black is part of the regional library system that includes libraries in Macon, Swain and Jackson counties and the regional staff has always been housed in Bryson City.

Snodgrass said the regional library board would be amenable to split up the staff between the Macon County Library in Franklin and the Jackson County library in Sylva to remove the total financial burden from Swain County. IT and computer server staff would move to Franklin, outreach staff with the Reading Rover program would move to Sylva and the four administrative staff members would stay in Swain.

“Mariana Black would still be the hub for shipping and receiving — all books would come here first, which means our citizens will still get books very quickly,” Snodgrass said.

Hargrove, who has worked with many communities to design new libraries, showed conceptual drawings of the new library. With high ceilings and a lot of glass to let in natural light, he described the building as “dramatic” and something the community would be proud to see as they’re driving up Fontana Road.

Madison County library project cost was about $190 a square foot, he said the most current estimates are more like $225 a square foot — putting the total project cost over $5 million for Swain County.

The committee had raised about $100,000 toward its $1 million goal just through smaller fundraising events, but Snodgrass said several people had pledged large donations that will only be collectable with the county’s support.

“We want to partner together. We’ve committed to raising $1 million and we have individuals ready to give but they need a project to give to,” Snodgrass said. “Basically we need your backing — we need your commitment — that’s why we’re here. We paid for the architect out of our funds and feel like we’ve done as much work on our side as we can at this point.”

It’s also difficult to find grants for infrastructure projects, especially without support letters from a county partner. Most granters these days are looking to fund the last dollars of a project and not the first dollars needed. Snodgrass told commissioners it would help if they’d write a letter of support or at least give the committee a deadline date for a deci“

We’re going to continue to move forward and we hope to come back to talk about a conditional pledge situation,” she said after commissioners were silent for a few moments after the presentation. “We are absolutely committed to making this happen.”

Commissioner Roger Parsons finally spoke up saying his recent tour of the Marianna Black Library showed an obvious need for a new facility. The current library was constructed in 1970 and is only 9,000 square feet.

“It’s an outdated place we’re in now,” he said. “It would be nice to find funding to help and partner with them.”

“I see the need myself but it’s an awful lot of money — those things aren’t cheap,” said Commission Chairman Phil Carson.

Commissioner Danny Burns asked if the county’s grant writer could get involved in looking for grants.

County Manager Kevin King said a grant writer was already looking into it, but like Snodgrass mentioned, brick and mortar grants are few and far between. 

Another library committee member asked if looking for a developer to do the project and lease it back to the county might be an option.

King said that was a possibility if the right developer was found, but the county would still have to have money to pay the lease. 

Commissioner Ben Bushyhead said the library planning committee should be answering those questions and bringing solutions to the board instead of asking the board to do that work. He added that he still didn’t understand what kind of commitment the committee needed from the county commissioners. 

Snodgrass said it wasn’t so much of a financial commitment needed right now, but at least a declaration the county is willing to partner on the project would be helpful. 

“The answer is yes. The one thing you said that I like is that ‘We’re dedicated to this no matter what y’all do,’ which says to me you’re not standing there asking us to do everything,” Bushyhead said. 

The committee members couldn’t seem to get commissioners to understand that donors weren’t willing to commit large donations without knowing the county is going to proceed with the project at some point. 

Carson said he thought the county made a commitment when the land was donated in 2014. 

“Everybody sitting here would love to see a new library and we hope that comes to fruition but none of us want to raise taxes to do it — we have to find additional funding,” he said. “I thought when I accepted the property that was a commitment that we’d help y’all find additional funding. And let’s just be honest — not everyone in the county thinks we need a new library. There’s some division in the community — not everyone uses the library.” 

Committee members admitted that was true, but they are also convinced more people would want to use the library if a new library was able to offer programs and services the current library can’t because of its small size, limited parking and old technology. 

Burns asked how other counties paid for their new libraries. 

Karen Wallace, director of Fontana Regional Library, said Jackson’s new library was done inside the old historic courthouse and included a large addition. The Friends of the Library group raised over $1.5 million in donations and grants while the county funded the remainder of the $8 million project. 

Macon County’s library in Franklin was built from scratch in a more modest design about 10 years ago — the Friends group raised over $1 million and the county funded the remaining piece of the $5.5 million project. 

Since libraries are considered public buildings that are maintained by the county, donors expect library projects to be supported by the county government. 

“We had the county’s commitment for a new library in the other counties,” Wallace said. 

Swain County does contribute annually to the Mariana Black Library but not as much as other counties. Macon County spends about $1 million a year to support three branches in the county, which equates to about 2.1 percent of the total budget. 

Jackson County budgets about $1.2 million a year for two branches, which is about 1.8 percent of the total budget. Swain County budgets about $200,000 a year for one branch, which is about 1.4 percent of the total budget. 

Snodgrass asked the board if one of the commissioners would be willing to serve as a liaison on the library committee so an open line of communication could continue. Commissioners said they’d talk it over and let the library committee know next month. 

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