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Jackson library to go atop courthouse hill

A decade of debate over where to build a new library in Jackson County was put to rest this week.

County commissioners voted 3-2 Monday night (Oct. 1) to build a new library next to the historic courthouse overlooking downtown Sylva. The vacant courthouse will be renovated in conjunction with the library addition. An architect will get to work immediately. Money for construction has been budgeted for 2008.

“We are very excited that our new library has a home,” said Mary Otto-Selzer, president of Friends of the Library. “No matter what the site was, there would be people who would be thrilled and people who would be not so happy. I do feel like this site will get a lot of community support.”

Joyce Moore, the owner of City Lights bookstore in Sylva, is among the thrilled. For 10 years, she has advocated for a location that would keep the library downtown, even spearheading a group called BOLD — Build Our Library Downtown.

“I think this is a site the community can really get behind,” Moore said. “I am incredibly excited.”

Moore said she never gave up hope the library would end up downtown, but certainly had moments of resignation. At one time the library was nearly shuffled out to the campus of Southwestern Community College. Most recently, it appeared the library was destined to be built next to an old strip mall known as Jackson Plaza on the edge of town. The county even bought the land for it, but never got around to starting construction.

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To Moore, courthouse hill — home to the county’s most beloved and historic icon — was a natural library site. It would breathe new life into the vacant historic landmark while making the library a focal point of the community. But the site had a few powerful detractors determined to kill it, and they were nearly successful, Moore said.

Then along came three new county commissioners willing to take a second look at courthouse hill.

They sanctioned an architect’s feasibility study this summer to determine whether the courthouse hilltop could accommodate a library at a price the county could afford. The report came back two weeks ago deeming the site doable. Ammunition in hand, the three commissioners overturned the county’s previous decision.

Curtis Wood, a long-time supporter of the courthouse site, didn’t think this day would ever come.

“I was surprised,” said Wood, a former WCU professor who works at City Lights. “People thought it would never happen — not that they were against it, they just gave up on it.”


The nick of time

Voting “yes” for the courthouse site were Tom Massie, Mark Jones and William Shelton — the three new commissioners elected last fall. Commissioners Joe Cowan and Brian McMahan voted against it.

Jones was largely considered the swing vote in the decision. Jones said he initially intended to stick with the Jackson Plaza site chosen by the previous board. It seemed like the debate had gone on long enough, and he saw no reason to revisit it.

“I originally was tired of the drawn out library location issue and the decade-plus that was spent on making this decision,” Jones said.

But one day, Shelton called Jones, invited him to lunch in Sylva and asked him to take a walk on courthouse hill.

“I changed my vision on that courthouse site,” Jones said. And it wasn’t because of the hamburger Shelton bought him that day.

Shelton encouraged Jones to look at the site through new eyes, ignoring the naysaying of detractors who’d written off the site as impossible. Jones said he realized there was enough space behind the courthouse to fit a library addition after all. But walking around on that hill, he also realized the importance of keeping the courthouse a focal point of the community.

While McMahan agreed the courthouse site has its merits, he felt the Jackson Plaza site offers the flexibility of a blank slate: easier site prep, better parking configuration and room for expansion. Realizing prior to the vote he was outnumbered, however, McMahan agreed to support the final decision.

“If the majority votes tonight to place the library at the old courthouse site, I’ll be behind it 100 percent because Jackson County needs a larger library and a library that is more in touch with the community,” McMahan said.

Cowan wasn’t quite so optimistic.

“I think it is a dreadful mistake,” Cowan said.


Paying for the project

The courthouse site will likely cost more than building on a fresh site. For starters, there’s the extra expense of renovating the historic courthouse along with building a library. The prospect of cost over-runs and surprise expenses are also greater for the courthouse site, Cowan said.

The county has budgeted $4.5 million for a new library in 2008. Architects estimate that’s about what it will cost to build the addition on the back of the courthouse. But renovating the historic courthouse will cost another $2 million or more, according to rough estimates. The county doesn’t know where it will get that money yet, according to County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

That’s one reason McMahan said he voted against the courthouse site. Restoring the historic courthouse wasn’t part of the county’s budget plan right now, McMahan said.

Shelton said it is money the county would have to spend eventually, so it may as well be done now in conjunction with a new library.

“We aren’t going to let the old courthouse fall to ruin,” Shelton said.

Massie agreed.

“Yes, it may cost us some more money than we originally anticipated, but it’s money we won’t regret,” Massie said.

Jones also agreed.

“It is going to cost extra money,” Jones said. “We are going to need help from the public to achieve our goals.”

The county already plans to lean on the Friends of the Library to raise money. For example, the community will be expected to pony up the money needed to furnish the library — from books to beanbags to computer stations. Money for furnishings isn’t included in the architect’s construction estimate, nor is it part of what the county has budgeted. It remains to be seen whether the community can come up with funds over and above what the furnishings will cost.

The massive fund-raising goal facing library patrons could be made easier with the selection of the courthouse site, however. Some library fans would donate to the construction of a new library no matter where it was located, but the public’s affection for the iconic courthouse could bring additional donors on board, Selzer said.

“It broadens the scope of the project,” Selzer said.

Those who support the county’s cultural heritage and history could be tapped as well, Selzer said. The county has promised space in the restored courthouse to the Jackson County Genealogical Society, Jackson County Historical Society and other cultural heritage groups. Selzer said Friends of the Library would like to partner with those groups to boost fundraising.

Friends of the Library has a kitty of just over $100,000 in a new library building fund so far.

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