CLEARWATER — It's another busy afternoon at the East Branch Library on Drew Street. The book stacks and computer terminals are packed with people, and they don't want to hear about a plan to move their local library 3 miles away.
"That's terrible," says Kristi Rainey, who's surfing employment Web sites. "What's wrong with the library we have?"
There's nothing wrong with it, except that Clearwater might not be able to afford five libraries anymore.
To save money, city leaders are seriously considering closing the Countryside and East Branch libraries and merging them into one large regional library between the two. They're weighing the pros and cons, and they're well aware that this is a hot-button issue for the public.
Another factor is that the likely location of this replacement library is a city park that's closer to suburban Countryside than it is to the working-class neighborhoods around the East Branch.
"This is an emotional issue," said Clearwater library director Barbara Pickell. "People love their library."
She can list the advantages and disadvantages of this idea better than anyone. She knows there will be opposition to it. But she believes this may be the libraries' best option amid Clearwater's harsh new economic reality.
Pickell's biggest fear is that budget pressures will cause the city to close one of these two busy libraries without having a replacement location lined up. She says that would be "devastating, a huge blow."
How it would work
Clearwater would use Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue to build a 45,000-square-foot library at Woodgate Park, a swath of mostly vacant land near the southwest corner of Countryside Boulevard and Enterprise Road. It would close the two 15,000-square-foot branches and consolidate their operations in the new building.
The pros: One large library would need fewer employees than two small ones, Pickell said. It could stay open more. It could offer better children's programs, and it would be designed with computers in mind. The city could also recoup some of its money by selling off the East Branch building, which occupies a prime spot on Drew Street.
The cons: Woodgate Park is only 1 mile from the Countryside Library, but it's 3 miles from the East Branch. And the East Branch serves a less affluent population, so people without cars would have a tougher time getting to the new library.
The city also looked at the former Circuit City store at U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road, midway between the two existing libraries. But the building's owner wants to lease it, not sell it. Pickell and other officials say it would be too expensive, and the site isn't pedestrian-friendly.
Officials say the chief advantage of Woodgate Park is that the city already owns it. Pickell says it has a bus stop for those using public transportation. She also notes that most people drive to libraries, and that this site is easily accessible from the south using main thoroughfares like U.S. 19 or Belcher Road.
"Is this the optimum location? No. Is it affordable? Yes," said City Manager Bill Horne.
This summer he'll be cutting $7 million to $13 million from the next city budget, and libraries are certain to take a hit. Horne's goal is to streamline Clearwater's government to a level that's sustainable over the long term.
Lots of libraries
With five locations, Clearwater has more libraries per capita than any of Pinellas County's large cities. (See box.)
But when officials recently floated the idea of closing the East Branch, it sparked a flurry of e-mails, letters and phone calls from people telling the city to leave their library alone.
The East Branch and Countryside libraries are surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Together they account for 60 percent of Clearwater's library usage.
City Council members haven't decided whether to pursue a consolidated library. They'll talk further during this summer's budget discussions.
"It'll be a long discussion, and at the end of the day I think it'll be a difficult vote for the five of us," said council member John Doran. "I think we all see both sides of it. We'll have to pick one or the other."
Council member Carlen Petersen, who can walk to the Countryside Library from her house, would rather have one really good library than two that aren't operating all that well. But she wants more input from citizens.
Mayor Frank Hibbard noted that Clearwater has earmarked $10 million in Penny for Pinellas money to renovate and expand these two libraries, and that money could build a regional library instead.
"We're going to have to make cuts, and we're going to have to start thinking about things we've never thought of before," Hibbard said. "It's going to be a different world."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.