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Library a go, probably at Jackson Plaza site

After years of the public waiting for a new library in Jackson County, county commissioners last week pledged to set aside $4.2 million to start construction in 2008.

What commissioners didn’t decide, however, is where that new library will be built. The long-standing debate over a library location will have to be settled soon so architects can get to work, but it appears one last round of deliberations is yet to play out. Three out of five commissioners are giving the green light to a location known as the “Jackson Plaza site,” while the other two are holding out.

The county bought land for a new library two years ago, following the recommendation of a community task force. But the site was far from embraced by all — even some on the task force weren’t happy with it. It sits on two acres adjacent to a strip mall called Jackson Plaza on the outskirts of Sylva near highway exit 81.

Two county commissioners — Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Joe Cowan — were part of the decision to buy the land and still stand behind it.

“We’ve talked about this for five years now, and I am ready to put it on a fast track and get it over with,” McMahan said at a county commissioners meeting last week. “I think we have talked this one completely to death. The plain and simple truth is we have a piece of property that is already paid for.”

Cowan agreed.

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“Let’s do it,” he said.

But two newly elected county commissioners aren’t necessarily on board with the location chosen by their predecessors.

“I have followed this for a long time. It has been talked to death, but the reason it has been discussed so long is apparently there is a lot to discuss,” Commissioner William Shelton said. “I am not ready to make a decision this red-hot minute. I just need a little time to weigh it all out.”

Commissioner Tom Massie agreed. Massie wants to consider building a library on the hill overlooking Sylva in conjunction with the now-vacant historic courthouse. The location was considered by the library site task force two years ago, but rejected. Critics say there is not enough room on the hill to build a suitable library without making it several stories tall. They also question whether the historic courthouse is architecturally sound enough to provide library space. Two studies commissioned by the county concluded as much.

But Massie says it wasn’t studied thoroughly or creatively enough. He wants to see the historic courthouse in use so it won’t be neglected and fall down.

“Part of the advantage in utilizing the existing courthouse is we would have tenants in there and make sure the facility is in good shape,” Massie said. Otherwise, the county will spend money keeping up an empty courthouse.

Massie and Shelton both support budgeting money for the new library in 2008, but wouldn’t throw their support behind the Jackson Plaza site.

That leaves Commissioner Mark Jones as the swing vote on the fate of the library location. Jones is also recently elected. Jones did not weigh in during the discussion during last week’s meeting, but later said that the Jackson Plaza site seems the logical choice at this stage.

“I have a certain disappointment that the courthouse site is not going to be acceptable because of space constraints, architectural constraints, parking, room for expansion, et cetera,” Jones said.

Jones said his preference would have been a joint library with Southwestern Community College — an idea once on the table but rejected by the library location task force.

“I think that would have been the best for the dollar,” Jones said.

After the county rejected the joint library idea, the community college moved forward with its own library plans and a joint library is no longer an option, according to County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

In Jones’ mind, that leaves the Jackson Plaza site as the only real option.

“I want to move forward with the library. It has been a decade-plus trying to decide this,” Jones said. “It seems like a no-brainer.”

With Jones siding with Cowan and McMahan in support of the Jackson Plaza site, Massie and Shelton’s desire to take one last look at library locations might be for naught.

The commissioners’ discussion last week came on the heels of a study conducted by a library consultant. The study describes what a new library should look like based on community input — from the number of computer stations to how much space is needed for a story time area.

As a side note, the consultant recommended a location for the library, namely the Webster area located along N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee. The area lies along a primary commercial corridor already frequented by most people and would prove convenient to the largest number of people, the consultant concluded.

There didn’t seem to be any takers for that location among commissioners, however.


Library costs

Massie expressed concerned over the $4.2 million price tag for the library.

“By the time you get around to actually building it, it will be $5 million or more,” Massie said.

Massie would like to see library patrons step up to the plate with fund-raising. Massie said he has toured new libraries in several surrounding counties, all of which were highly supplemented with private fund-raising.

Members of Friends of the Library who were in the audience responded that private fund-raising is definitely in the game plan. They said they were “chomping at the bit” to start funding raising. But first, they need a location and a basic drawing of what the library will look like.

“It is much easier to ask people to write a check when they have a pretty picture to look at,” said Mary Otto Selzer, a member of Friends of the Library.

Jones said that’s one reason he is willing to support the Jackson Plaza site.

“It gives the fundraiser people the ability to start moving forward,” Jones said.

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