The Highland Public Library Board of Trustees held a community forum on Thursday, June 5 at Lloyd Town Hall to announce their intention to pursue the purchase of 7 Elton Place, a 2.3 acre lot of empty land currently owned by St. Augustine’s Parish, in order to build a new, modern library on the site. The parcel of land near the junction of Commercial Avenue and Grove Street in the hamlet of Highland is just two-tenths of a mile from the current library’s location at 30 Church Street. Trustees of the library are hopeful to have a bond for the project up before voters in November, said library board president Joanne Loewenthal, but according to church representative Chuck Mazzetti, the land will remain in the hands of the parish until a bond issue is passed.
At this point, there are no cost estimates finalized or design plans in the works.
The problems with the circa 1905 building where the library is currently housed are well documented — a leaky roof, duct tape holding lead paint onto the ceiling, cracks in walls, security problems and charred beams in the attic from a 1948 fire, among other things — and the search for a solution has been 25 years in the making, said Loewenthal. While at one time renovation of the existing building was considered, the extent of the repairs necessary and the lack of space at 30 Church Street make it the least appealing alternative when compared to relocating the library. “How much more should we put into the building knowing it’s way too small,” said Loewenthal, “and that it doesn’t allow for what we want to be doing?”
Back in 2010, Highland voters were asked to support a different plan to relocate the library, but it failed by just 91 votes. When the library board members last came before the public in the fall of 2013, they sought feedback on how to develop a plan that would gain the support of residents. What they heard, said Loewenthal, was that people would like to have a library with a comfortable “Barnes & Noble” type atmosphere where they can relax and read, and where individuals and community groups could gather. It has to be a space within walking distance of the hamlet, yet with ample parking, handicapped accessibility and built at a reasonable cost.
Over the winter, six possible sites for a new library were evaluated, including some that had been looked at in the past. A possibility that had been raised previously, razing the current building and rebuilding on the site, was considered again. One option considered among the most promising was converting the now-closed St. Augustine School into a new library. But when they approached the parish about selling the school to the library, said Loewenthal, the answer was an emphatic ‘no.’ Parish representatives said they would like the space to remain open to the community for a variety of purposes and they are still hopeful that the Archdiocese will allow them to reopen the school at some point. During the discussions with Father Thomas Lutz, however, said Loewenthal, he put forth the prospect of selling the library the land St. Augustine’s owns at 7 Elton Place, which they currently use only for overflow parking during special events. After reviewing all the options available, the decision was made by the library board to narrow their interest to that particular site.
Because its location is so close to the current library building, “It will be accessible in very similar ways that the current library is accessible,” said Loewenthal. And, she added, this property has the additional advantage — since the library is off the tax rolls — of not taking another property or building off the tax rolls, as most of the other options under consideration would have. Choosing this option also preserves the current building at 30 Church Street should someone be interested in purchasing and restoring it. Any profits from its sale would be a source of revenue to put toward building the new library.
The next steps, Loewenthal said, will be to finalize a purchase agreement (contingent upon the bond passing with voters) and to conduct environmental impact studies at the site. The board is also planning two charrettes next month in which residents of Highland can actively collaborate with the board and the architectural firm in deciding what the new library building should look like and what types of services it should offer along with working through cost estimates and taxpayer impact. “We have a long way to go, and we know the costs have to be lower than they were in December of 2010, but we’re going to be frugal,” said Loewenthal.
The first workshop session is planned for Thursday, July 17 followed by another on Saturday, July 19 with time and place to be announced (although the Thursday session will likely be in the evening and the Saturday workshop during the afternoon). The architectural firm to be engaged, Butler Rowland Mays Architects LLP, who have a substantial portfolio of library construction and renovation including the libraries in Gardiner and Saugerties, will come back to the community and board on Sept. 10 and 13 to submit preliminary plans for feedback.
“We continue to need everyone’s help,” said Loewenthal. “We’ve only gotten as far as we have, I think, because of those fall sessions [in 2013] where people gave us their ideas and thoughts, and they should continue to do that as we move through the next steps.”
Highland resident Ethan Jackman elicited spirited responses from others attending the meeting after he read from prepared comments in which he stated that the library’s two main functions of lending books and providing research facilities are obsolete. “The writing is on the wall [for libraries] that its days are numbered,” he said. “Tonight I am going to predict that if a new library is built according to the old model, in less than ten years it will be a dinosaur.”
Reaction was strong and swift.
“Libraries today are being used more than ever before,” said one man. Others pointed out the need for a community center in Highland, especially for seniors. A woman who identified herself as a former college professor of 40 years experience said, “I’m looking to help the next generation learn to love to read, to love books, to love talking about them. As electronically connected as I am, I don’t believe the Internet will ever take the place of what an engaged group of people talking about books, talking about language, can have, and the library would be the center in Highland for that to happen. I’m looking forward to being proud of a new library in this town.” She added that when she volunteers for storytelling at the current Highland Library, which is without the handicapped accessibility that she needs, it makes that more difficult.
Library Board financial officer Mark McPeck brought up various studies that have shown that all-electronic libraries have been proven to cost a community more than a traditional library, actually increasing the library budget through licensures and costs of storing titles as an independent nonprofit institution. He spoke about a study that Google did, in which they’d begun to look at investing in book-less libraries, but shifted gears after studying communities and realizing what else occurred in libraries, and how they become community centers for people of multiple ages.
Jackman remained unconvinced. “Perhaps if all the books on the shelves of the Highland Library which have had no circulation during the past five or ten years were culled from the shelves,” he said, “the reclaimed space may be adequate for the community’s needs.”
The Highland Library Board welcomes comments by e-mail to library director Julie Kelsall-Dempsey at firstname.lastname@example.org or to the board of trustees at email@example.com. Comments may be mailed to Highland Public Library, 30 Church Street, Highland NY 12528. Updates on the proposed project can be found on Facebook.com under “Citizens for a New Highland Library.”