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Courthouse site doable for new Jackson library

Years of wrestling over a location for a new Jackson County library will come to a close next month.

Jackson County commissioners pledged to pick a site for a new library at their next meeting on Oct. 1. There are two main contenders: the hill behind the historic courthouse overlooking Main Street and a two-acre tract on the outskirts of town adjacent to the Jackson Plaza strip mall.

The majority of commissioners seem to be leaning toward the historic courthouse site. The commissioners sanctioned a feasibility study this summer to determine whether the courthouse hilltop could accommodate a library at a price the county could afford.

The study was presented to commissioners at their meeting this week (Sept. 17). The verdict: it would be tight, but a library big enough to serve the county could fit on the hilltop and could be done more or less within the county’s means. (see “Library report just in” for details.)

Architect Ron Smith warned commissioners that the report was a quick and dirty analysis.

“We haven’t designed a library. We just kind of made sure it works,” Smith said. “We just had to make sure the basic functions of the library would fit in this footprint.”

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The courthouse site had previously been written off as impossible, but Commissioner William Shelton wasn’t convinced and advocated for the feasibility study. Commissioner Tom Massie joined Shelton in convincing the rest of the commissioners to give the feasibility study a try.

“We now have the facts we need so we can make an informed decision,” Massie said upon receiving the report.

Jackson County’s current library on Main Street in Sylva falls woefully short in nearly every area, from the slim selection of books to its cramped ambiance. After years of controversy over a new library location, public library fans seem ready for nearly any decision.

“Our attitude is we have to have a library sooner rather than later. We are willing to work with anything,” said Dottie Brunette, the head librarian in Jackson County. After reviewing the feasibility study, Brunette said the courthouse hill is workable.

“I think we can work with it,” she said.

Supporters of the courthouse site want a library within walking distance of downtown. It would avoid sprawl and help keep the downtown area vibrant. It would also give the iconic but now vacant historic courthouse a community purpose.

The site isn’t perfect, however. For starters, it doesn’t have room for future expansion. The road winding up the courthouse hill is steep and narrow. Another concern is parking. Supporters of the Jackson Plaza site feel the blank slate of a fresh tract would be easier to work with.

The county commissioners have set aside roughly $4 million for the construction of a new library. Architects estimated that a new library on courthouse hill would cost roughly $4.5 million. That does not include furnishings, such as chairs, books or computers. It also doesn’t include architect fees, which could run around $300,000.

Commissioners have said the public will be expected to raise money to help with the new library and will need to cover anything over the $4 million mark, such as all the furnishings. Macon County recently opened a new $4 million library, and library supporters raised just over $1 million to provide furnishings.

The architects said they designed the library at 20,000 square feet to keep it in line with commissioners’ desired price tag. Massie asked whether there is room on the hill to make the library bigger should community fundraising prove extra lucrative. The answer was “yes.”


Change of course?

If the commissioners select the historic courthouse site, it will be quite a reversal from what many in the public believed was already a done deal. Two years ago, the county purchased the tract of land beside Jackson Plaza following an extensive community debate on a library location.

That decision was made by a previous board of commissioners, however, and the county never got around to allocating money for construction. In November, three newly elected commissioners claimed seats on the board and decided to revisit the library issue — namely by sanctioning the feasibility study.

Commissioner Joe Cowan was the only board member who did not support the findings in the feasibility study. Cowan thinks putting a library on the courthouse hill is like forcing a round peg in a square hole.

“I think it is the worst possible site for a library,” Cowan said following discussion of the feasibility study at the commissioners meeting.

Like Cowan, Chairman Brian McMahan was also on the board two years ago when the county settled on the Jackson Plaza site. McMahan went along with the feasibility study, albeit somewhat reluctantly. McMahan supported the feasibility study on one condition: that a decision one way or the other would be made promptly following the receipt of the report.

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