Some call for new thinking on library

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Instead of asking how to raise $4.5 million to build a library on a onetime dump near the Clarion Hotel just outside of town, Curt Mason wants local leaders to focus on a different question: Where is the best location for the new library?

Shepherdstown has outgrown its library, now located inside a 2,000-square-foot market house built in 1922.

Citizens might prefer the idea of repurposing the empty Southern States building on Princess Street close to the main downtown thoroughfare, said Mason, a member of the Summit Point Library Commission.

Mason earlier this year was asked by members of the Shepherdstown Public Library’s board of trustees to be part of its Capital Campaign Planning Committee.

Familiar with other Panhandle libraries built in recent years or under construction now, Mason said he believes many in the community will balk at the price tag attached to the plan to build on a brownfields site where the town dump was located until 1969.

“To ask people to buy into spending $4.5 million on a 17,000-square-foot library – I’ve been involved in capital campaigns and that’s a pretty big gulp,” he said.

He points to the downtown library being built in Hedgesville. That project, begun in October, will cost $1.2 million for a two-story building that measures 9,000 square feet.

Citizens will want to see that the Shepherdstown library is being built with frugality in mind, Mason said. “That’s been my experience,” he said. “Otherwise, people aren’t going to be willing to open their wallets.”

Late last week, Libby Sturm – elected as the library board president in July – sent an email to Mason and other members of the Capital Campaign Planning Committee, including Meredith Wait, the head of the Shepherdstown Business Association, a group that has formally called on the library board to give “a serious review” to the Southern States site.

With the subject line of “Thank you,” the March 2 note expresses Sturm’s gratitude to the citizens for sharing their time and energy in working on the campaign.

“During these sessions, an alternate site for the new library was discussed,” Sturm wrote. “The authority to make decisions regarding the acquisition of any library property is granted to the Board of Trustees by the WV Library Commission. The BOT will not pursue acquiring the Southern States property.”

In an interview, Patrick Kirby – director of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, who has been working with library director Hali Taylor and the library board on the brownfields project since late 2008 – said the Southern States property already has been explored as a potential library.

But few members of the public were aware that the Southern States property existed as a possible site, Mason, Wait and others point out.

“The public has weighed in on the programs they want at the library, but you can have programs and books and computers at the library wherever the library is – none of that is tied to a particular site,” Mason said.

He is calling for the library board to reassess all the options. “Everyone involved is well-intentioned,” he said. “And it’s only human nature to want to go with the horse you’ve got. But for the good of the community, we’ve got to do this right. I’m not saying one site is better than the other, but I am saying we ought to have an open, objective debate and see which site truly is the better option.”

In her email, Sturm outlines several considerations that she said factored into the decision to remain focused solely on the brownfields site:

“The BOT has spent over five years soliciting community input and surveying the community regarding the vision for the new library. The Southern States property is not compatible with this vision. We encourage you to visit www.thelibraryproject.org to view the focus group and survey results.

“The BOT has received a grant of $250,000 from a major foundation as well as several donations from the community to build a new library at the brownfields site. The board cannot ethically use these funds to acquire or fund feasibility studies regarding another property.

“We have secured $200,000 for cleanup of the brownfields site, and these funds are not transferable. We have also received matching funds from state legislators that are tied to this grant. The BOT is committed to following through on this obligation.”

Wait said she’ll bring her concerns about the brownfields site to the Shepherdstown Town Council at its March 13 meeting.

“The library is such a big part of downtown and so important to the future of our downtown,” she said. “That’s why the Shepherdstown Business Association has called for this review.”

The W.H. Knode’s Sons Southern States building on Princess Street has been vacant since the family shut down the business in the fall of 2010. It hasn’t formally gone on the market.

“What I’m hearing is that the property could be made available at a very competitive price because there’s interest in making a civics-minded contribution to Shepherdstown, a lasting legacy to the town,” Mason said.

It recently came to light that library board members in late 2010 discussed an even more attractive possibility: that a private, unnamed donor would purchase the Southern States site for its use as the town’s library.

According to minutes from the Nov. 22, 2010, special meeting, board members adjourned after more than 90 minutes of discussion.

Board members immediately questioned whether the donor was making a serious offer and also expressed concern about the site itself, including whether its location close to railroad tracks made it a poor location for a library.

Thanks to federal grant money, work could begin as early as May to clean up the 4.5-acre brownfields site off Cherry Lane behind Elmwood Cemetery.

Kirby said there never was public discussion of the Southern States building as a possibility because the potential donor didn’t want to be identified.

“You’re talking about a preliminary discussion with someone who wanted to remain anonymous – private money for a potential private deal,” Kirby explained in an interview last week.

At some point later, Kirby and Taylor met with the still-unnamed potential donor, according to a summary of the meeting written by Kirby.

“The meeting resulted in the interested donor asking us to approach them during future fundraising efforts for the dump site,” the document states. “The potential donor also provided in-time time and resources to create presentation materials to build stakeholder support for the new library on the dump site. The donor stopped pursuing the purchase of the site from [the Knode family].”

But in the letter sent in late February from Wait on behalf of the Shepherdstown Business Association, the Southern States property is described as “an opportunity” to keep the library downtown.

The letter was sent to Shepherdstown Mayor Jim Auxer, members of the Town Council and West Virginia Library Commission chairwoman Betty Gunnoe.

“The SBA strongly believes the library should stay in town – its presence is central to the local vitality of downtown and contributes to the overall social fabric,” the letter states. “There is strong community support to maintain a town location.”

With the Southern States site, the library would “retain the library downtown, expand its floor space fivefold, be within safe walking distance of our schools and residential neighborhoods and save money when compared to the out-of-town brownfield site the library now is considering.”

The former dump site, made available to the library by the town at no cost, was put under the control of the Jefferson County Development Authority in order to open the door for federal grants.

Kirby has said the price tag for the new library on the brownfields site may be as little as $2 million or much as $6 million, depending on how large a structure is built.

He said the new library likely would measure between 15,000 and 18,000 square feet. The current facility, a market house built in 1922, has just 2,000 square feet.

Library officials for months have been quietly discussing how to raise funds for the new library, with a formal capital campaign set to begin later this year.

Federal grant money to clean up the dump site could be put into use as early as May, Kirby said.

Mason said he and other Capital Campaign Planning Committee members want to see the library board explore the Southern States property.

“The ‘thank you’ letter seems to say clearly that where the library is going to go already has been decided and further discussion isn’t needed or wanted,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that the possibility of using the Knode property for the library has never been fleshed out.

“If it’s less expensive to renovate an existing building and if it keeps the library downtown, then to flat-out reject that possibility doesn’t seem to serve the community.

“Why not look at all the options?”

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