TAMPA — Supporters of a library named for one of Tampa's best-known civil rights leaders have fended off an attempt to shift nearly $8 million in construction funds to another inner-city library.
Hillsborough County commissioners had earmarked the money to tear down and rebuild the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library near Ybor City. But that project probably won't take place for at least five years.
So this spring, supporters of the College Hill Branch Library asked county officials to use the money to replace their busy, crowded branch right away.
"The Library Board should see for itself the many cracks in the walls and floors allegedly caused by the shifting of the ground beneath the building," said Howard F. Harris Jr., president of the Ada T. Payne Friends of the Urban Libraries, in a March 12 letter.
College Hill needs a new library now, Harris said in his letter to the county, while the need for a new Saunders library "is in the distant future."
To supporters of the Saunders library, those were fighting words. If the county shifted the money away from the Saunders project, they feared, it might never happen.
"There's not many of us civil rights warriors still here," said Ann Porter, 72, the past president of the Tampa-Hillsborough branch of the NAACP. "I would just hate to see the memory of one of our leaders go down the drain behind something like this."
Saunders died at age 81 after being injured in an auto accident in 2003. During a critical period in the civil rights movement, he became Florida NAACP field secretary after the murder of his predecessor, Harry T. Moore, in 1951.
Despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Saunders worked statewide to desegregate public schools, beaches and housing, win raises for black teachers, bring affirmative action to government contracting and college admissions, stop police brutality and register voters. Locally, he saved the Tampa NAACP after it nearly fell apart.
While College Hill's request did not provoke widespread controversy, it did stir things up in Tampa's black community.
"We are dismayed that anyone would attempt to play one library and its supporters against the other," the Florida Sentinel Bulletin said in a May 21 editorial.
Currently, county officials plan to spend about $7.85 million to replace the existing 7,300-square-foot Saunders library with a new branch more than three times as big. The construction money has been set aside. If anything, what's delaying the project now is finding the money to staff and operate the larger library, county library system director Joe Stines said.
The College Hill library, about 3 miles to the northeast, is about the same size as the Saunders library, but it has more patrons check out books, use its computers and attend meetings in its community rooms.
The cracks in the College Hill Branch, which opened in the early 1990s, apparently resulted from prolonged dry weather affecting the sand and clay under the building. The library is safe, and the cracks can be repaired, Stines said.
Although College Hill is busier, supporters of the Saunders library expect more use as the Tampa Housing Authority builds its Encore redevelopment project on the old site of Central Park Village, just across N Nebraska Avenue from the library.
The 30-acre redevelopment project is being paid for in part with $28 million in federal stimulus money. Years from now, officials say, it could be home to up to 7,000 people, plus a hotel, grocery store, offices, shops, a middle school, African-American history museum and park.
Last week, supporters of both libraries packed meetings of the county's Library Board and its planning committee. In the end, board members voted to leave the money where it is.
They also voted to put College Hill on a list of unfunded library construction projects. Over time, the projects on that list are evaluated and ranked so they can be funded as money becomes available.
After the votes, both sides went home happy.
"We got on the unfunded list, and now we've got to get on the funded list," Harris said of the College Hill library. "We got the county at least talking. Now people know that that library over there is too small and needs to be rebuilt."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.