CLEARWATER — The Countryside Library is often packed. It's a community gathering spot in Clearwater's far-flung northeastern suburbs. It's the city's second-busiest library, ranking only behind the much larger Main Library.
But the Countryside branch is too small and dated. It was built in 1988 — before computers and the Internet were part of daily life, and back when libraries were almost entirely about books.
The city believes it's about time to expand and update the Countryside library. Beginning this year, there will be millions of dollars in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue earmarked for just this purpose.
But first, the City Council must make a big decision: whether to renovate the existing library or build an entirely new library at another location nearby.
The council is locked in a stalemate. Each choice has its positives and negatives.
One problem is, council members aren't sure what their constituents will want. They're looking for feedback from the public. They know that relatively few people are even aware that this is being discussed.
"It hasn't been out in the community," Mayor George Cretekos said. "I'm anxious to see what the community thinks about a move."
The 25-year-old library is on State Road 580 near Countryside Boulevard, wedged between a fire station and a wastewater treatment plant.
If the city decides to build a new library, instead of renovating the existing one, it would go next to the Countryside Recreation Center in Countryside Community Park, 2640 Sabal Springs Drive, a less visible spot not far away. The city looked at other locations, but those haven't worked out.
At a City Council work session last week, Clearwater library director Barbara Pickell went over the pros and cons for each option. She was joined by local architects Phil Trezza and Ward Friszolowski, who have designed 40 Florida libraries.
If the city wants a larger, 22,500-square-foot Countryside Library, each option would cost about the same, they said. Renovating and expanding the current library would cost $6.5 million. A new building would cost $6.4 million.
The existing library's main advantage is that it's in a highly visible location. Its main disadvantage is the limited amount of space and parking at the site. Also, the current building would have to be virtually gutted to make the space usable.
And if the library were moved? There's plenty of land and parking available at Countryside Community Park. The city could build a state-of-the-art library there. It also could keep the current library open while building its replacement, instead of closing the library for renovations.
The park's main disadvantage: It's a lot less visible.
That lack of visibility is why Cretekos is leaning against relocating to the park. "I am very uncomfortable with moving the library," he said.
Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson is in favor of a move.
"Do I want an older library that's been renovated, or would I rather pay less for a new, functional library?" he asked. "I wish they were all this easy."
Bill Jonson, the only council member from Countryside, has heard from neighbors on both sides of the issue. He's undecided. "We're going to make some folks unhappy with this, no matter which way we go," he said.
Clearwater has earmarked $12.5 million in Penny for Pinellas taxes to expand its Countryside and East branch libraries. The city is in talks with St. Petersburg College to team up and build a joint-use library that would replace the East branch on Drew Street.
As for the Countryside Library, the council will likely take up the issue again at its Feb. 21 meeting.
Judy Blanton, a member of the Clearwater Library Board, has been a Countryside resident for 20 years. A retired teacher and librarian who has worked through renovations, she recalls running into unexpected problems that ended up costing more money and time than building something new.
"I like the Countryside Recreation Center site, as it offers more room for expansion and parking," Blanton said. "I'm hoping for more input from Countryside residents."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.