Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
About two years ago, as Athens-Clarke County was preparing to revise its comprehensive plan, staff members hosted a drop-in meeting to talk about economic development. The meeting took place at Chase Street Elementary School, but the conversation included all corners of the county. When the topic turned to the east side of the county, several attendees were adamant: They wanted a library.
"You want economic development on the Eastside?" one attendee asked the moderator. "We need a library."
It's a mantra that has been repeated, off and on, for years, with little movement from the county government or the Athens Regional Library System. But one of the 88 items proposed for the 2020 SPLOST list aims to fill that void. The Athens-Clarke County Libraries Board has proposed a 20,000-square-foot facility, likely at Southeast Clarke Park, that would serve as a full-service library branch with 30,000 items available on opening day, meeting rooms, study rooms, a children's area, teen area, computers and a "21st Century creation space" outfitted with STEM and STEAM technology.
Valerie Bell, regional director of the Athens-Clarke County Library, said an Eastside library has been a topic of conversation since she arrived in the position four years ago. "Almost immediately, I had community members telling me there needed to be a library on the Eastside, and so we've been talking about it probably since that time," she said. In early 2018, the library board organized an exploratory committee to look into the issue, which turned into a SPLOST proposal.
The ACC library system now includes five facilities: the main library on Baxter Street—which was fully renovated in 2013 with SPLOST 2005 funding—the East Athens Resource Center, the Lay Park Resource Center, the Pinewoods Library and the Winterville Library.
Two similar-sized library buildings already exist nearby: The Watkinsville branch of the library is 18,000 square feet and serves a population of about 36,000, and in Madison County, the Danielsville branch is also 18,000 square feet and serves a population of about 29,000.
Bell did not have an estimate for the number of Clarke County residents an Eastside branch would serve. Instead, she and library board chairman Ian Thomas said the main issue is access.
"There's a bunch of neighborhoods around there, it's on a bus line, and there are a lot of activities that go on [in the park] already that a library can help improve," said Thomas during the presentation to the SPLOST committee. "This would provide a unified way for that community to get together and access all of these programs we have.
"There's also a problem, if you live on the Eastside, of getting to the main branch of the public library," Thomas added. "It can take upwards of two hours if you're on public transportation to get to the main library. This is something that's simply not meeting the needs of the residents of the Eastside."
The proposal focuses on building the library at Southeast Clarke Park, where the master plan now calls for a 20,000-square-foot community center near the expanded skate park, although Bell said they have not been in negotiations with ACC Leisure Services for the use of the land.
Access to land is often key in SPLOST proposals, which are being weighed against the dozens of other community projects proposed for SPLOST 2020. The entire wish list, if fully funded, totals $1.2 billion. This week, the SPLOST citizens advisory committee has been tasked with narrowing that down to 150 percent of the amount SPLOST 2020 will raise, or roughly $372 million. From there, the Mayor and Commission will work with the committee to whittle the list down even more, and by April, the project recommendations should total $248 million, or $278 million if commissioners opt to add a 10th year.
Many presenters are told, unofficially, to have a Plan B with a lower price tag. Bell said that's not really an option for this proposal—a building will likely have to be built no matter what. "The only thing we could think of as a Plan B, because we felt really strongly that this project was necessary, is to make the building smaller," said Bell. "But we think that park would be absolutely perfect for a library."