Overdue at the library

When it comes to the selection of a location for a new library to replace the long-outgrown facility downtown, residents of Shepherdstown deserve a fair, open and transparent process.

It appears, however, that members of the Shepherdstown Library Board of Trustees are less interested in ensuring such a process than in steamrolling ahead with the plan they prefer.

Leaders of the Shepherdstown Business Association say it was with reluctance last year that they signed on to a plan to build the new library a mile outside of town, on a brownfields site off W.Va. 480.

Now those involved with the business association are speaking up – and the group may opt to formally withdraw its support for the new library at the brownfields site.

They’re clearly taken aback to learn that the library board had known since late 2010 of a promising alternate site that would keep the library downtown — the empty W.H. Knode’s Sons Southern States property at the intersection of West Washington and South Princess streets.

Meredith Wait, the president of the association, and many library patrons say they were stunned that the library board kept from the public key information about the property, and instead forged ahead with the brownfields site, even securing a $250,000 federal grant for its cleanup.

According to documents just released, library board members months ago knew of a potential donor with a desire to buy the Southern States property and deed it to the library.

Late last week, library board president Libby Sturm emailed members of the library’s Capital Campaign Planning Committee to defend the board’s private, out-of-hand dismissal of any consideration of the Southern States property – reminding committee members that discretion in the selection of a new library resides solely with the board by order of the West Virginia Library Commission.

The board’s insistence on justifying its selection of the brownfields site on the basis that too much time and money had already been invested in its choice sidesteps an important reality: this very outcome is the result of the board not being forthcoming about the existence of an alternate location.

Very troubling too are recent attempts to wave away the donor’s offer with the explanation that board members had no way of knowing whether it could be taken seriously.

That clearly wasn’t the case. According to recently released library board documents, board members actually met with the would-be donor and managed to talk him or her out of pursuing the Southern States offer, instead eliciting the promise to contribute to the board’s already chosen site, where the Shepherdstown dump was located until the late 1960s.

Many questions remain.

Why did board members for more than a year keep from the public the existence of an alternate site for the library?

Why did board members keep from the public the news that an anonymous donor had proposed buying that downtown site for the library?

Why did board members push the potential donor away from helping secure the downtown building and instead ask for help in building at the brownfields site?

And then there’s the question of money.

So what if the library board remains dead-set on the brownfields site if the community can’t raise the money needed to actually build there? Many are voicing concern that the $4.5 million to $6 million price tag for a new green building at the brownfields is steep, perhaps unreachable.

How can the library board continue on this present course, justifying its stubborn insistence on ignoring a plan that likely would cost less? In what world does it make sense to dismiss the possibility of a donated building that could be repurposed, on a site that is downtown and within easy walking distance to schoolchildren and downtown shoppers?

If, in the coming days and weeks, support for the brownfields site begins to unravel, the library board might be tempted to pin the blame on the downtown business association.

It shouldn’t.

Members of the business association have done Shepherdstown a favor by stirring this debate.

Library board members should be called on to better explain why they chose to privately reject an alternative. They should be asked why they’ve moved ahead with a pricier library outside of town.

It’s a discussion the public deserves to hear, and one that’s long overdue.

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