Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: After 16 years, agreement on joint SPC-Clearwater library overdue

On a spring night 16 years ago, Clearwater city leaders made a decision they said was based on common sense: They voted to replace the aging, overcrowded East Branch library on Drew Street with a new joint-use library on the St. Petersburg College campus a half-mile down the street.

They had specifics: The new college library would be expanded by 30,000 square feet to accommodate the public library use; the college would provide a 125-space public parking lot; the city, to cover costs, would tap Penny for Pinellas dollars and grants and proceeds from selling the East Branch property.

Sixteen years later, the library still hasn't been built and city officials are still talking about whether a joint-use library with SPC-Clearwater is the way to go. In fact, at a City Council work session Monday, some council members seemed ready to back pedal from the whole idea.

Yes, the wheels of government turn slowly, but this is ridiculous.

Clearwater confirmed its interest at various times through the years. On Oct. 4, 2012, the City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with SPC to "enter into discussions to develop an agreement and cost formula . . ."

But no operating agreement has been signed and no cost formula exists. The city hasn't committed financially.

While Clearwater has dilly-dallied, the college recently has forged ahead. It has picked the location for the new library: along Drew Street beside the current parking lot for the school administration building. The college has hired an architect and soon will choose a construction manager. The college is drafting an operating agreement to send to the city soon.

But on Monday, city library director Barbara Pickell sounded unenthusiastic as she gave the City Council its first formal update on the library proposal since October 2012. There's been no discussion of operating costs with the college, she said. No agreement on how to distribute building costs. No discussions about the design of the building.

There's also been no resolution of some potential challenges. Would the college staff the new library or would it have staff from both the city and college? The city staff earns less than the college staff; the city staff is unionized while the college staff is not. How would that work? The college library is open 69.5 hours a week to serve students' needs. The city library is open 46 hours a week. Adding enough staff to match the college's hours would cost up to $250,000, Pickell said. And then there is the question of the libraries' collections — not only how to handle two different cataloguing systems but also future acquisitions.

When Pickell said the joint library wouldn't save the city any operating costs, council members' eyebrows went up. "It was my understanding that joint use would be more efficient and more effective," said council member Bill Jonson. Vice Mayor Doreen Hock-DiPolito called for more research. Said Mayor George Cretekos, "Are we better off not going down this path?"

After 16 years? Really?

This shouldn't be that hard. The cities of Seminole and St. Petersburg have shared libraries with SPC for years. Each project overcame unique challenges.

Clearwater's East Branch is still overcrowded and doesn't have space to expand. The city would have to buy land elsewhere and rebuild. Or, it can join SPC's project down the street and create a dynamic community hub.

SPC-Clearwater provost Stan Vittetoe has been an enthusiastic advocate for the joint-use library. The city also needs a leader on this issue who will see the creative possibilities, overcome the hurdles and get the city in the game.

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