Voters to decide on $108.5M library project

By Ashley Barker
abarker@scbiznews.com
Published July 1, 2014

Building five new libraries and renovating 13 branches is how Charleston County is going to stay competitive with other cities for new businesses looking to locate in the area, according to Janet Segal, chairwoman of the Charleston County Public Library’s board of trustees.

“Other communities around the country, which we’re in competition with, they’re building libraries. Look at Seattle, San Antonio; we should be doing that,” Segal said.

Charleston County Public Library offers nearly 6,000 free programs, classes, exhibits and concerts annually to 167,000 attendees. (Photo/Charleston County Public Library)
In fiscal year 2013, Charleston County residents used library services valued at $93.74 million, or $267.67 per capita. (Photo/Charleston County Public Library)“We want to be able to offer our residents 21st-century libraries with services that they don’t even know they want because we don’t have any of them here. Our buildings are so old they really can’t handle the stress of all the new technology that we’re asking them to handle.”
— Janet Segal, chairwoman of the Charleston County Public Library’s board of trustees
Charleston County voters will have a chance in November to decide whether a $108.5 million library construction project is worth an annual property tax increase of $11.20 per $100,000 for homeowners. The increased tax would be in effect for six years.

The library’s board held 11 public input meetings to put together a construction plan that includes three replacement libraries for the existing James Island, Cooper River Memorial and St. Paul’s-Hollywood branches.

Two new locations also would be built, including a 40,000-square-foot branch for the East Cooper-Carolina Park region and a 20,000-square-foot branch near Bees Ferry Road and S.C. Highway 61. The two new branches would cost $23.3 million and $13 million, respectively.

The 13 remaining branches would be renovated, including technology upgrades, at a cost of $26.5 million, and support services in the main library would be relocated to allow for more public space.

“Our libraries are not 21st-century libraries by any stretch of the imagination. We want to be able to offer our residents 21st-century libraries with services that they don’t even know they want because we don’t have any of them here,” Segal said. “Our buildings are so old they really can’t handle the stress of all the new technology that we’re asking them to handle.”

Libraries in other states have recording studios and “maker spaces,” which are dedicated to the newest technologies such as 3-D printers and computers with animation software. Segal said she’s not sure what technology Charleston County’s libraries will eventually purchase but said they’re looking to get creative.

Keeping up with growth

If the measure is approved, the new libraries will be built first and are expected to open between late 2016 and mid-2017. The renovations would start after the new buildings are functional and could potentially be done by 2020.

Segal said the new buildings and renovations would increase operating costs by about $5.6 million each year. Since the extra $11.20 would be assessed only during the construction phase, a homeowner could also expect to see an increase of $6.80 annually per $100,000 to cover the operating costs once the libraries are open.

Nearly 30 years have passed since voters decided on a library construction referendum. In 1986, about 75% of voters approved four new regional libraries and the expansion of a new main library.

Segal said now is the time to put the issue back on the ballot because Charleston County Public Library’s circulation is 3.38 million items each year — a 290% increase from 1986 — and nearly 6,000 free programs, classes, exhibits and concerts are offered annually to 167,000 attendees.

“We want buildings that our county is proud of. We’re building for excellence, and those buildings should reflect that,” Segal said.

In fiscal year 2013, Charleston County residents used library services valued at $93.74 million, according to library spokeswoman Jamie Thomas. She said that equates to $267.67 per capita based on 2010 census figures. Last year, about $14.18 million in county tax dollars was spent on library services, Thomas said.

“This represents a 661% return on investment,” Thomas said.

Meeting goals

The amount of public space, computers and print materials per resident is less than state standards updated by the S.C. State Library in 2012.

Libraries are expected to have 1.25 square feet of public space per resident, and their target is to provide three public computers per 1,000 residents, according to the Standards for S.C. Public Libraries. Charleston County would need 450,000 square feet but has only 155,458, or 0.43 square foot per resident.

About 1,100 computers would be needed to meet the target; there are currently 349, according to Thomas. With a goal of four print materials per resident, Charleston County would need to purchase 330,000 more materials, she said.

No library system in the state is actually meeting the standards for square footage. Chapin Memorial Library is the closest, with 26,000 square feet of library space for its 27,109 residents.

The Berkeley County Library System has 47,412 square feet of space for its 177,843 residents, and the Dorchester County Library System has 33,501 square feet for 136,555 residents, according to state library system documents.

The state also recommends locating libraries within a 30-minute drive of their cardholders’ homes and businesses.

During the public input phase, many residents in West Ashley and James Island said they were against closing existing branches at South Windermere and Camp Road in exchange for a new library along the Folly Road corridor.

“People who showed up at the meetings really liked the feeling of that small neighborhood library that they could walk to,” Segal said. “Windermere is the best example of a great walkable, urban or suburban library. They can go to the library, eat out and go shopping without ever having to get in a car.”

As a result, the board revised the plan to keep the South Windermere branch open and replace the 6,000-square-foot James Island branch that was built in 1978 with a new, 20,000-square foot branch.

As of mid-June, one new library branch site had been finalized, according to Segal. She said a developer donated property for the Carolina Park library that will be near Wando High School.

The board hopes the remaining properties will be donated, or they’ll find property where government services are already in place to reduce costs. If the referendum is approved, Segal said an architect will be selected and the public will be invited to help decide what the new libraries will look like.

Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.

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