CLEARWATER — Change is coming to some of Clearwater's libraries, and not everyone is happy about it.
More than a year after city leaders decided to move the Countryside Library, some residents of Clearwater's northeastern suburbs are mounting an 11th-hour petition drive to oppose the move.
Meanwhile, a few miles to the south, plans to combine the city's East Branch Library with a new St. Petersburg College library are mired in some gray areas. The city will soon be forced to decide, once and for all, whether to do this.
Also, Clearwater Beach residents will soon be lobbying to extend the operating hours of the Beach Library. They want the city to add morning hours to the small library, which is open in the afternoon.
Still, the most immediate topic is the Countryside Library, as time is rapidly running out for anyone who hopes to change the city's mind. In fact, city leaders are saying it's already too late.
Clearwater has millions of dollars in Penny for Pinellas sales tax money set aside to renovate, expand or build new versions of its old, outdated Countryside and East Branch libraries.
The City Council voted in May 2013 to build a new Countryside Library instead of renovating the existing one. The library on State Road 580 is regarded as too small. The new library will go next to the Countryside Recreation Center in Countryside Community Park, 2640 Sabal Springs Drive, just north of the current library.
At last week's council meeting, a group of Countryside residents spoke out against the plan. It wasn't the first time this had happened in recent weeks.
Bill Yeomans called the community park "an unacceptable location" that is less visible and accessible.
"We feel very strongly about this," he said. "There are petitions forthcoming."
"So many people we approached were not aware of your plan," Margaret Mann told the council. "They want to keep Countryside Library where it's at, in a very accessible location."
Mayor George Cretekos said the city had already signed contracts for the construction work. "You should have been here a year ago," he told them.
The council will vote Aug. 7 on a budget for the new library. A groundbreaking will be held on Aug. 29. The new library is to be finished by September 2015.
Some speakers at the meeting wanted to know when the public was made aware of the city's decision.
In February 2013, council members began seeking feedback from constituents about whether to renovate the existing library or build a new one elsewhere. Judging from emails and phone calls that City Hall received at the time, residents appeared to prefer a new library.
"There were public meetings in the neighborhood," Cretekos said. "There were notices at the library saying we were making this decision. There were several articles in the newspaper saying we were going to make this decision."
St. Petersburg College will soon build a new library on its Clearwater Campus on Drew Street, half a mile from the city's East Branch Library. How involved Clearwater will be in that project remains an open question.
SPC and Clearwater agreed to plan a joint-use library that would serve students as well as users of the East Branch. But first, the city and college must hash out how much Clearwater would pay toward the estimated $6 million to $10 million cost.
No matter what, the college is opening this library in 2016. Stan Vittetoe, provost of SPC Clearwater, envisions up to 60,000 square feet in a three-story building. It'll have a cafe-like atmosphere with a coffee shop and free Wi-Fi.
The degree to which that building belongs to Clearwater will depend on how much cash the city pitches in.
An architect has been hired and is preparing to draw up plans. By the end of the summer, SPC will send an operating agreement for the city to sign. This will force Clearwater to make a decision about the library merger, which has been discussed informally for more than 15 years.
At a City Council work session last week, some elected officials didn't sound sold on the idea. They were surprised when city library director Barbara Pickell said the joint-use library wouldn't necessarily save the city any operating costs.
"Are we better off not going down this path?" the mayor asked.
In interviews at East Branch, library users have not expressed opposition to a joint-use library.
City officials have long said expanding East Branch would be challenging because the building and its parking lot are boxed in on all sides.
But now, Pickell said one of the churches that borders the library might be willing to part with some of its property. That's a new development.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield on Twitter.