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Swain wants a new library, but where and how big a long way off

First Macon County, and then Jackson, built big, beautiful, new libraries over the past five years. Now, it seems, Swain County residents — who are part of the same three-county Fontana Library System — believes it’s their turn to take a ride on the new library train.

Ron Dubberly, a library consultant who advised on both Macon and Jackson’s facilities, was sanctioned to do a study of how much library Swain needs to serve the county for the next two decades. He spelled out his findings in a report to county commissioners: the 7,000-square-foot library is half the size it should be to serve the county’s future population.

“If you build a library now, you would need a plan for expansion,” Dubberly told Swain County commissioners and an audience of 25 last week.

And after assessing the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City, holding public input meetings with library users and interviewing staff, that was one of the report’s central tenets: it needs to be bigger, with more space to meet and gather for programs and lectures.

“The major spaces that you need are comfortable seating in busy and quiet areas, ergonomic computer workstations and chairs, and lots of electrical outlets that are very accessible because things are changing. Increasingly people are bringing their own devices,” said Dubberly. “I think we’ll all see hard copy books around as long as we’re here … but library use is growing and people are using the spaces for community spaces.”

Right now, the county’s library is a modest 7,267 square feet, which is 37 percent below the minimum state standard — which recommends two-thirds of a square feet per person. So if the county is planning on a new library, Dubberly suggested looking for about three acres of land to do it.

But finding that much usable land in downtown Bryson City is something of a problem. Because that was the other major recommendation — that the library be in town, easily reached by pedestrians, and have adequate parking.

“Anything’s possible, but it’s not that easy to come up with three acres of flat property inside the city limits,” said County Manager Kevin King.

King said the county has been talking to Fontana Regional Library about a new library in Swain for about eight years. And the question of where has always been an issue.

Now that the report has put in writing what has been bandied about in the community for years, library advocates are hoping it will light the fire for fundraising in the county.

“I know that there are people who will step up to the plate when the fundraising starts,” said Jeff Delfield, the county’s librarian. And they have two shining examples of that, in Macon and Jackson counties.

While money to build the libraries came from county coffers, Friends of the Library groups raised all the money to furnishing and outfit the library, from computers to book shelving.

In Macon County, fundraisers reached their $1 million goal by going after grants and seeking a broader base of small donations.

“I felt that there were probably 100 families that could give $1,000, so we just started making lists and I would average calling 10 people a day,” said Roberta Swank, who headed up the fundraising efforts for the Macon County project.

In Jackson County, they reached their $1 million dollar goal and decided to keep going, eventually bringing in $1.8 million towards the furniture, fixtures and collections.

Mary Otto Selzer led that effort, and her group took nearly the opposite approach to Macon. They went after the big fish first.

“Our goal was to have half or two-thirds of our goal obtained before we went out to the community,” said Selzer, who came to the position after a successful finance career in New York and London.

And although both neighboring counties were successful in their efforts, even with different approaches, their victories shared a common birthplace — a building.

Both funding campaigns really grew legs and took off in the community once a location was identified.

In Jackson County, Selzer said the building itself was really the centerpiece of the fundraising campaign.

“I think one of the key elements to our success is that probably our most beloved structure that has become kind-of a symbol of Jackson County was the historic courthouse (where the new library is housed),” said Selzer. It was the vision of that structure in people’s minds that opened their wallets. “I really think that in this case, a picture was worth $1.8 million.”

Though Macon didn’t have quite such an iconic structure to market, having a location and a building — the certainty that money was going to an actual library, not just a library fund — helped.

“We had the land and commissioners had committed to building the building,” said Swank. “We wanted to be able to look people in the eye and say ‘if you give me $5, that $5 is going to go to the library,’” she said.

And that’s a problem in Swain County.

There is a space that could be used for the library, next to what will soon be the business education and training center on Buckner Branch.

It’s technically within the city limits, and even though King said a path could be created from downtown to the spot, most would put it outside the realm of true walkability. Somewhere like the Buckner Branch site, however, might be the most feasible.

To go along with the problem of land is the underlying problem of funding.

There’s no county money set aside to buy land or build anything on it.

“We don’t want land to be sold, we want land to be donated, for a possible naming opportunity,” said librarian Delfield. “We can’t rename the library, but there’s still other huge naming opportunities. I don’t think the county’s going to be able to just buy land that they don’t already own.”

Another option is that they simply ignore some of the recommendations in Dubberly’s report. Their successful neighbors did.

In Jackson County, the report suggested that the library be closer to Sylva’s retail corridor, where Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Ingles populate a short stretch along N.C. 107.

And despite a tug-of-war over the library’s location that lasted more than a decade, a narrow majority of county commissioners eventually opted for a downtown spot.

In Macon, they took many of the suggestions and put them into practice. Others, they ignored.

“We followed some, but sometimes what you would like to have and what you can afford are two different things,” said Swank.

Talks between the library and commissioners have been under way in Swain County for more than eight years, but this is the first report to identify actual needs.

So getting a building on the ground will probably still be a good few years off.

“We need to find out what is actually attainable based upon the recommendations. That’s what we’re investigating now, after these reports have been done, what did the other counties do?” said King.

The report, though, is a step in the right direction. And in the meantime, as Commission Chairman Phil Carson said after hearing Dubberly’s report, if anyone’s got any land for a library, just give the commissioners a call.

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