The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees voted 9 to 2 On Monday to move the Oconee County Library from its current location at 1080 Experiment Station Road on the northwest side of Watkinsville to the commercial redevelopment project called Wire Park on the southeast of the city.
In taking the action, the Board reversed a decision it had made by an 8 to 2 vote in July of 2019 to move the library to the county’s planned administrative building just outside the city’s northern boundaries.
The Board of Trustees took its vote after a 40-minute discussion in which roadway access to the library played a role, but members also spoke about what they viewed as strong statements of public support for the Wire Park location and the appeal of locating the library in the Wire Park setting.
John Daniell, Oconee County Board of Commissioners chair, and Wire Park owner and developer Duke Gibbs, joined by Christine Tucker and Brian Brodrick, members of the Watkinsville Council, had made presentations to the Board at its meeting earlier this month.
The meeting on Monday was called for the Board to make a final decision.
No time frame for the move to Wire Park exists, but Board Chair Mark Campbell said the Board will now go forward with planning for the opening of the new facility.
The library at present is in a strip of government buildings on the major entranceway to the city from the west. The complex includes the Oconee County Health Department, the Library, the U.S. Post Office (which the county owns), and the Sheriff’s Office and Jail.
The library, which the county built in 1995, is 17,377 square feet in size, according to tax records. The county and Library Board agree that the facility is in need of expansion.
The state has allocated $1.9 million toward that expansion or for a replacement, and the county has said it will add $1.2 million to that amount.
The county has said that the current location does not provide adequate space for that expansion and proposed instead that the library move to a 7.6-acre tract just outside the northern boundary of Watkinsville at the intersection of SR 15 (North Main Street) and U.S. 441.
Following the vote on July 8 of 2019, the county did preliminary architectural work on a building that would house both the library and county administrative offices and provide space for a separate library building in the future.
Before the Library Board voted on Monday, Chair Mark Campbell told the group that the county had allowed it to reconsider its earlier decision.
“The Board of Commissioners could easily have said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t do this. You can’t go’,” Campbell said. “But they have been very open, very honest to say, ‘if the Library Board chooses to go to either location, but really specifically if the Library Board chooses to go to Wire Park, we’ll honor that’.”
Board member Rubielen Norris was the first to speak when Campbell called for discussion.
“This would be the Oconee County Library,” she said. “It doesn’t say Watkinsville Branch. It doesn’t say Watkinsville. It says Oconee County. We are to represent all of the citizens of Oconee County.”
Norris said that library use data show that only 16 percent of the current patrons are from Watknsville and those patrons would have to go through Watkinsville to reach the library if it moved to Wire Park.
“Who is profiting from people buying condos and all of the development?” Norris asked. “It’s the developer and the owner. So they have a great interest in getting us there.”
“We’ve always had the support of the county,” she said. “We have the support of Watkinsville now that they want us there.”
Norris said the county’s site provides space for expansion. “If we need to expand in the years to come we’ll have the area to do it,” she said.
“I agree with everything you said,” Rachel Watson, who followed Norris, said. “Duke Gibbs is obviously a great marketer. Is the county a great marketer? No, not really.”
“To me, Wire Park is just using us as another marketing tool,” she said. “And so I’m not particularly thrilled about that.”
“My main concern is what we are we going to do in five or 10 years if things start heading south and meanwhile we’re stuck at Wire Park,” she added.
Proponents Of Wire Park
Mike Eddy, principal at Malcom Bridge Middle School and a Board of Education appointee to the Library Board, was the first to speak after Norris and Watson, and he and most of the others who spoke acknowledged some of the problems Norris and Watson raised.
Eddy had been on a committee of the Board that had reviewed and debated the proposals and made the recommendation that the full Board hear presentations from Daniell and Gibbs on Jan. 11.
Other committee members were Norris, Laura French, Jon Kirkpatrick, and Campbell.
“The Wire Park location is really a neat design,” Eddy said. “If you want people to come together, it’s a community hub.”
Eddy said traffic is going to be a problem at both sites, but he felt the site of the new government building at the north end of Watkinsville would create fewer traffic problems.
Eddy said he didn’t think the $3.1million was going to be adequate to build the library at that site and he was impressed with Gibbs’ offer to donate the building at Wire Park for the library.
Eddy said the emails he had received were “overwhelming” in favor of Wire Park.
Kirkpatrick, who represents the city of Watkinsville on the Library Board, was most enthusiastic about the Wire Park location.
He, too, focused on the letters of support he had received, saying that of the nearly 100 received 80 had been in favor of Wire Park.
Of particular note, he said, was a letter from the Friends of the Oconee County Library supporting that location.
Kirkpatrick also mentioned the editorial in the Jan. 7, 2021, edition of The Oconee Enterprise endorsing the Wire Park location.
The proposed county facility will provide 20,000 square feet of space, Kirkpatrick said, and the building that Gibbs is donating is 25,000 square feet “and ready to go.”
“Essentially, we’re paying $3 million for a couple thousand more square feet and some parking spots which cannot be expanded without building a new building with the costs in the range of $8 to $10 million,” Kirkpatrick said. “So somewhere down the road, 10 to 20 years, if the library needs to expand, we’re going to have to build a brand new building.”
Kirkpatrick said the Board can renovate and build out the existing building at Wire Park with the available $3.1 million “And if we need to expand, the additional 5,000 square feet is already there.”
Based on the asking price when Gibbs was trying to sell the building, Kirkpatrick said, Gibbs is making a “significantly more than a $1 million donation to the county.”
“We have a chance today to do something unique,” Kirkpatrick said. “If we put the library at Wire Park, that’s going to make us visionary. It is going to give us something unique that nobody else has.”
Fred Lutz told his fellow Board members that a number of things concerned him about Wire Park, including child safety, parking, backup power, and the nature of the public/private partnership.
“The thing that kind of tilted it for me is the overwhelming support of the public” Lutz said. “I just have a hard time saying ‘I know better than all of the input that we’ve gotten.” About 90 percent of it is in favor of Wire Park. That is where I come down on this.”
Board member French reminded her colleagues that she had voted against moving to the government building in 2019.
“I have never liked the idea of the library being in a government center,” she said. “While the libraries are public, they are funded by the taxpayers, I don’t think that our patrons necessarily associate the library with government.”
She said she was concerned about safety, about the public/private partnership, and about traffic.
“Fred is correct,” she said. “There was overwhelming support from the emails we got, basically 10 to one, in favor of Wire Park.” She also mentioned the Friends of the Library letter of support.
“I am dismayed that the public discussion has really framed this as Watkinsville versus the county,” she said. “This is a county library. It is not a Watkinsville library. I think it is unfortunate that this Board has been put in the position of making a choice that has been improperly framed publicly.”
“I think more people will use Wire Park,” French said. “I think the library would get more use. If we’re in the business of literacy and education, then I would rather be in a location that has the potential for more use.”
Eddy made the motion to move the library to Wire Park, and Lutz seconded.
Voting in favor were Kirkpatrick, Bogart representative Deann Craft, Eddy, Soraia Santos-Felgenhauer (also a Board of Education appointee), French, Lutz, Angela Moss-Hill, Mandy Marable, and Daphne Norton.
Norris and Watson cast the two negative votes. Campbell did not vote.
Following the vote, Lutz made a second motion, saying that the library should have a backup power supply, that 40 parking spots be dedicated for library use during open hours, that the library should have control over the meeting rooms, and that lighting and television security be installed.
Gibbs has promised 15 dedicated parking spaces.
The motion also said that the library should be involved “in the site partnership as is necessary to support the mission of the library.”
That motion passed unanimously by voice vote.
|Existing And Proposed Library Sites (Click To Enlarge)|
Penny Mills recorded the video below.
The meeting took place at the Bogart Library, which, as is the case for the Oconee County Library, is part of the Athens Regional Library System. The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees also is responsible for the Bogart Library.
Discussion of the future Oconee County Library site begins immediately in the video and follows the order of my presentation of comments above.
The vote is at 41:02 in the video.