Library site worth checking out again

Some weeks back we wondered whether the Shepherdstown Library’s board of trustees had been as thorough as it should have been in making a selection for a new library that a number of business members in the town had reservations about. It’s a fair question, but one we ask this time of ourselves.

We’ve decided to give the library board’s selection a second look.

There are clear limitations to where a new library sufficient to meet the needs of its service population can be located and the library has clearly outgrown the available space in the downtown Market House building.

Library board members initiated their exploration of the 4.5-acre brownfield site behind W.Va. 480 as far back as late 2007. Since that time the board has proceeded toward the development of that site as the one on which to construct a new library, along the way securing funding from a number of sources, not the least being the donation of the land itself from the town of Shepherdstown as well as a $200,000 grant to the Jefferson County Development Authority for the cleanup of the property, which was once used as a municipal dump.

To step away from this site leaves the land in limbo and means the loss of significant funding library officials have amassed in pursuit of the project. Plus, it’s a good location. Just outside of the downtown business district, but not situated so far out of town that it makes the library unreachable. Indeed, moving a new library building would serve two purposes — it would make it more accessible to the system’s other 18,000 people under its charge and it would allow for a significant expansion of the facility, both stated goals of board members.

To quote Van Morrison: “It’s too late to stop now.”

In reaching this conclusion, we nevertheless recognize as valid the concerns of a handful of business owners who worry that relocating the library outside the center of town will draw visitors away from the downtown and away from the downtown business district. This is a valid concern.

Shepherdstown is a cultural and commercial gem for Jefferson County, possessing both charm and character while at the same time being a vibrant village brimming with a unique blend of eateries and shops — there’s always something good going on in Shepherdstown, both for residents and visitors. Shop owners and others who have made sizable investments in the town deserve to have their concerns addressed. It is they who have the most to lose by anything that would impact the town unfavorably. Library officials recently embarked on one such effort at answering questions last week when they invited the director of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center to explain the stages of the development of the project to guests during a gathering at the library. A public comment period for the proposed site also opened on June 11.

We’re not convinced, however, that the library is much of a draw to visitors and tourists the independent store owners most attract, and it’s unlikely that it’s used much by Shepherd University students either. The library exists to serve residents of Shepherdstown, and as it is a member of the Jefferson County library system, also serves outlying residents of Jefferson and even Berkeley counties. At just about 2,000 square feet, the current space is woefully inadequate to that task.

Some business owners have eyed the onetime W.H. Knode’s Sons Southern States building as a site for a new library. That location, while more accessible to the downtown, has its own shortcomings, not the least of which being the library board would have to forfeit everything that’s been raised and start from scratch, hope to secure funding for its purchase and remediation and then convince residents it is in fact the better site for the purpose of raising funds for its renovation. In too many ways, heading that way is a step backwards at a time when the library most needs to be about the business of securing the community’s support for a project into which it has already contributed significant resources.

In a nod to business owners’ concerns, library officials have proposed allowing the Market House to continue to function as an annex to the new branch. This would allow the library to continue to maintain the downtown presence business owners appear most concerned about losing. Uses being pondered include a reading room, a research area, an exhibit hall or a tutoring area — good ideas, all.

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