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Consultant recommends Jackson library site

Where to put a new Jackson County library is no closer to a resolution following a $20,000 study by a consultant intended to lay the groundwork for building a library.

The study was conducted by a professional library consultant, Ron Dubberly, and drew on public input collected during numerous community brainstorming sessions. While the crux of the study focused on what people wanted to see in a new library — from magazine reading lounges to children’s story areas — Dubberly touched briefly on the raging debate over the new library’s location. That part of his study got the most attention when presented to county commissioners at their meeting this week.

Dubberly recommended locating a new library in the Webster area between Sylva and Cullowhee, namely in the vicinity of the intersection with N.C. 107 and N.C. 16.

“We did not pick out a lot or pick out a corner. That’s a whole other project for other folks to do. We just picked out within a mile or two,” Dubberly said.

Many were surprised by the recommendation. The greater downtown area was assumed to be the more preferred location.

Dubberly said his recommendation was based on demographics, geography and transportation routes. In other words, it’s central to the largest number of people and along a prime commercial corridor already frequented by most. Dubberly also suggested small branch libraries in Sylva and in Whittier.

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“Thank you for making our job as commissioners so much easier,” Commissioner Tom Massie joked when Dubberly presented the report. “I thought we were building one library and now we’re building several.”

Commissioner Will Shelton said he understood that Dubberly was recommending a location based solely on a demographic analysis.

“I understand that was based not on emotion but strictly on the county’s demographics,” Shelton said.

But out of curiosity, what did the majority of those participating in the public input sessions want, Shelton asked. Downtown Sylva proper, greater downtown Sylva and the Webster area all got votes from the public during the sessions, but Dubberly did not quantify which location got the reigning number of preferences.

Dubberly said the recommendation in the report was “no one’s agenda but mine.”

“That was what I felt was appropriate for your demographics,” Dubberly said.

In calculating the demographic and geographic center of the county, Dubberly included the Cashiers area. Cashiers, however, already has its own library. Some questioned whether Cashiers should be factored in when determining a central location for a new library. If Cashiers was removed from the calculation, what constitutes a central location could shift toward downtown Sylva.

Above all, Dubberly said it is crucial to pick a location with room for expansion, or the community will be “back at this” process in another 15 years.

A new library has been under discussion in Jackson County for a decade now, but has been scuttled by debate over a location. The county appointed a task force to select a location once and for all two years ago. The outcome led to the purchase of a 2-acre tract beside a strip mall on the outskirts of town near exit 81 of the U.S. 23-74 by-pass.

Many were not happy with that site, however, seen as a compromise at the time. Some would rather see a new library built adjacent to and in conjunction with the now-vacant historic courthouse overlooking downtown Sylva. Others want something in the Webster area so people don’t have to venture into downtown.


Long overdue

One thing everyone in the debate seems to agree on — confirmed by Dubberly’s report — was that Jackson County’s current library is not just lacking in space, but woefully so. Jackson is among the bottom of the library totem pole for its population, according to Dubberly.

“Your square footage falls far below North Carolina’s minimum guidelines and falls far below the median of 129 libraries across the United States serving populations of a similar size,” Dubberly said.

The library in Sylva is around 6,000 square feet, and the library in Cashiers is 12,000 square feet. But since the Cashiers library only serves a fraction of the county’s population, leaving just the measly 6,000-square-foot library in Sylva for the majority of Jackson’s population, the library status is even worse in reality than it looks on paper.

Dubberly said a new library should be 26,000 square feet to get Jackson up to par and serve the library needs of the community, along with two 5,000-square-foot branch libraries. Dubberly’s reports also calls for 54 public computer terminals, compared to the eight at the current Jackson library.

Dubberly said the people of Jackson County are clearly eager for a new library, judging by participation in the public input sessions.

“I will tell you that we had more people consistently come out to these meetings than I have seen in most of our locations where we have done this type of survey. People were engaged and active and thoughtful in what they were saying,” Dubberly said.

The study provides a blueprint for architects that will be designing the library. It outlines how much space to allot for various library functions, based on what the community said they wanted in a library. Without such a study, designing a library could be like a shot in the dark — guessing how much space to allocate for a children’s section, audio books, computer terminals or magazines.

“This doesn’t have to be the exact roadmap commissioners take, but at least now they have information that should be helpful to the process,” said Mary Otto Selzer, board member of Friends of the Library.

The report also details equipment needed to service the library: the number of rolling book carts, conference tables, bulletin boards, shelving units, even down to children’s play rugs and DVD players for audio listening stations, a recurring request during the public input sessions.

“It’s almost like a detailed shopping list,” Selzer said.

The study was funded with a $20,000 grant from the state, applied for by the Fontana Regional Library System. A similar study was also conducted by Dubberly in Macon County, ultimately leading to a fabulous new library that just opened last month.

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