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Constance Alexander: Library space is important to any community, the need for more is a no-brainer

Thirty-one years ago, before moving to Murray, I checked out the public library because, to me, it is one of the most important places in any community. Back in 1988, Margaret Trevathan headed up the operation with visionary leadership, a firm hand, and tireless grace. It was clear that she and the staff applied creativity and hard work to make sure community needs were met.

The high standards and competent leadership established by Mrs. Trevathan are evident in the current director, Mignon Pittman. From past to present, the staff has exhibited responsiveness and unremitting professionalism, while promoting the values of literacy, community participation, and lifelong learning.

While the population of Calloway County has increased, the size of the library is still the same. Thanks to careful budgeting and enlightened management, the library has put aside more than $2 million for the future. Nevertheless, efforts to move forward with renovation and expansion plans are bogged down.

In 2016, when the public was invited to review and discuss 3 options for expansion, the board voted in favor of a 28,000 sq. ft. facility at a completed project cost of $6.4 million.

“Considering that this building hasn’t been altered in 40 years, this is an investment of decades,” said Ryan Alessi, board president at the time.

He went on to emphasize the choice as affordable and “certainly no less than this county deserves.”

Still, three years later, library operations and activities are crammed into about 12,000 sq. ft., with a ranking toward the bottom of Kentucky’s 120 counties, in terms of square footage.

Last April, the board of trustees voted 3-1 to proceed with a $6.4 million renovation and expansion. The existing space would be remodeled and an additional 16,575 square feet would be added.

The celebration was short-lived, when three board members resigned, to be replaced by the authority of the county judge at the time. The board now consists of four retired men and one younger, working woman with a family, a composition that does not reflect the demographics of the community at large or library users in general.

With a new majority in place, the board revisited the decision to renovate. The vote of the prior board was overturned. All the effort and input systematically gathered and analyzed for more than four years is now in question. In addition, some board members insist that a vacant bank building should be considered as an alternative, in spite of multiple and obvious drawbacks.

As rancor has increased, the newly-elected judge executive established a special committee “as a working group to address concerns and assist the library in finding solutions to expand the current facility.” The new committee, which has no official power, is composed of five men and one woman.

While the role or the committee is uncertain, and their power to take any action unclear, community members are encouraged to share their comments by emailing callowaylibrarycommittee@gmail.com.

All that said, one must ask, “Why is renovation and expansion of a library that is too small to serve the needs of the community such a big deal? Is the “make-do” philosophy a vision that will propel Calloway County toward further prosperity and economic development?

One answer that seems to overshadow all others is that long-term debt will be incurred in the process as if that is some kind of original sin never before committed to funding public projects.

The longer deliberations drag on, the time value of the money in hand diminishes. Interest rates are going up. Some economists predict another downturn and perhaps even a recession. The meter is running. The need for more library space continues and more roadblocks that cost time and money – like hiring an attorney to argue against a ruling of an Open Meetings violation – obscure the way forward.

The underlying assumptions of the naysayers have not been clearly defined. There seems to be no acknowledgment that fundraising might reduce indebtedness. The availability of grants is another possibility. Clearly, the need for more space is a no-brainer, and there is some money in the till already.

So where’s the beef?

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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