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Clearwater, St. Petersburg College closer to library merger

Clearwater’s East Branch Library on Drew Street, above, may be merged with the library on St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus. Neither side has fully committed to the idea yet.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Clearwater’s East Branch Library on Drew Street, above, may be merged with the library on St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus. Neither side has fully committed to the idea yet.

CLEARWATER — St. Petersburg College appears to be forging ahead with building a new library on its Clearwater campus that would be merged with the city's nearby East Branch Library. The shared library would be used by SPC students and the public.

SPC memos say the college will soon hire an architect for "new construction of an approximately 50,000-square-foot building in partnership with the City of Clearwater."

"The city of Clearwater is going to be a participant," SPC president Bill Law recently told the college's trustees. "We're still determining that level. But it's a significant participation, several millions of dollars."

However, Clearwater's elected officials haven't actually decided to do that yet, and there has been no announcement that the East Branch Library will be closing.

So what gives?

Both SPC and Clearwater say there's a reasonable explanation.

The college and the city are in serious talks about joining forces to build a joint-use library at SPC's campus on Drew Street, which is just a half-mile down the road from the East library. It's looking increasingly likely that it is going to happen. But neither side has fully committed to the idea yet.

In Law's case, he was speaking optimistically. Just moments later at that same SPC trustees' meeting, he had another college official make it clear to the board that at this point, "both entities can de-commit from this at any time."

So far, Clearwater is spending $30,000 to study whether a merger makes sense for the city. The City Council is waiting on specifics.

If one side appears to be further along than the other, that's because SPC has decided to build a new library on its Clearwater campus with or without the city's partnership. The college has set aside $14 million for the project, mostly from its reserve funds.

SPC's current 48-year-old library in Clearwater would need a new roof, new air conditioning and a slew of upgrades. "This building, if we're not careful, will fall down around us," SPC trustee Deveron Gibbons said after touring it.

SPC hopes to pick an architect in March and break ground in a year on a three-story library on a four-acre plot on Drew Street at the campus' northwest corner, said Stan Vittetoe, SPC-Clearwater provost. "It'll be a prominent fixture there," he said.

This will force Clearwater to make a decision soon about the library merger, which has been discussed informally for nearly 15 years. "If we're ever going to do it, now is the time to do it," Clearwater library director Barbara Pickell recently told the City Council.

In an interview this week, Pickell said the city is exploring a partnership with SPC because it wants to expand and upgrade its East Branch Library, and this would be a realistic and cost-effective way to do that.

The city has earmarked $7.5 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue for the job, but Pickell says the existing library presents challenges. Constructed before the age of computers, the library and its parking lot can't be expanded because they are boxed in on all sides.

Taxpayers, library users and City Council members will have questions about whether a library on SPC's campus would be an adequate replacement for the East Branch.

Pickell says a combined library would be state-of-the-art, conveniently located and open for more hours. "It would be very accessible from the street," she said. "It's not like it would be in the middle of the campus and people would be put off."

The city also believes it could recoup at least $1 million by selling the East Branch building, located on a prime spot on Drew Street.

SPC and Clearwater officials are quick to note that the college has practice at this: It already has joint-use libraries with cities on two of its other campuses. The Seminole Community Library opened on SPC's Seminole campus in 2003, and the West St. Petersburg Community Library opened on SPC's Gibbs campus in 2005.

"It has worked out very well. We have not had any difficulties," said Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds. But he said a lot of work went into ironing out the various financial and operating issues ahead of time.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater, St. Petersburg College closer to library merger 02/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 7:53pm]

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