After stirring up library lovers by talking about merging two popular branch libraries into one new facility, Clearwater officials now are having second thoughts. Second thoughts can be beneficial if they lead to better decisions, and this library issue clearly needs more solid research and a more focused explanation for city taxpayers before a decision is made.
Unlike most other Pinellas cities, which have only one library or none, Clearwater has five — a signature main library on the downtown waterfront and four branch libraries. And each has a loyal following.
Over the summer, when city officials strapped for cash talked about closing the small North Greenwood branch library, that community fought successfully for its library. Patrons also objected when the city considered closing the larger East branch on Drew Street or the Countryside branch.
For several years the city has planned to use Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue to renovate and expand the aging, jam-packed East and Countryside branches. But this year, wanting to further reduce library operating costs, the City Council instead talked about closing those two branches and replacing them with a new, consolidated library. To avoid land costs, the city proposed building the new library on a grassy field at Woodgate Park in North Clearwater. And to solve overcrowding issues at the two 15,000-square-foot branches, the city would make the new library 45,000 square feet. The cost would be roughly $9 million.
If location is everything, this idea has a few problems. First, Woodgate Park is only 1 mile from the Countryside branch, but 3 miles from the East branch. Some patrons of the East branch aren't happy with that idea, especially those who are still smarting from the city's decision to demolish the Morningside Recreation Center in southeast Clearwater. Second, Woodgate Park has access issues and backs up to a quiet neighborhood.
Opponents also wondered how the city could save money on libraries by building a new, even bigger library. Wouldn't the bigger space require more staff, more computers, more books, more parking, more utilities?
Library director Barbara Pickell acknowledged that the utility costs for a larger library would go up, but she said she could probably operate one facility with fewer people than she could two, thus saving about $180,000 a year in operating costs. And she said she could offer more and better services in the new building. However, since staffing for a library depends on the building layout, services offered, hours the library is open and how many people visit the facility, and none of those things is known, can Pickell's prediction of savings be anything more than a guess?
City Council member Paul Gibson is gung-ho for closing the two branches and building the new library. He correctly points out that both branches are overcrowded and functionally obsolete and that if the city decided to renovate them rather than closing them, each would have to be out of service for an extended period. He's also convinced that the city could sell the East library property on Drew Street for a million dollars, but in this economy, isn't that guesswork too?
Furthermore, the city doesn't know how much it would cost to renovate the two branches, whether floors could be added, how much the renovations would add to the buildings' lifespan, or what the finished products would look like, because there are no designs or even conceptual drawings. Having that information is essential to making a good decision.
The city previously pared its budget in ways that required cuts in hours and staffing at the city's libraries. Now, it is talking about building a bigger, better library with more services. That's a conflicting message. Whether the City Council decides to renovate the branches, leave them as they are, or build a consolidated branch library, it needs to have all the facts at hand and be able to sell its plan to the public. It has more homework to do.