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A tale of two library sites

Nobody seems to be the clear winner in a tug of war over the future site of a new 30,000-square-foot library in Oak Harbor, but residents got the chance to give their opinions Wednesday night.

After three years of research and study, the choices have been narrowed down to just two possibilities. The library building committee picked the SE Jerome Street property, on school district property next to John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool, as their top choice.

On the other hand, the majority of Oak Harbor City Council members and residents involved in the Harbor Pride group strongly support the “Massey site” between SE Pioneer Way and Bayshore Drive.

The library board held a community forum to inform the public and gather input about the two choices Wednesday. It was followed by a site-selection workshop between the library board and the City Council.

Councilman Richard Davis spoke passionately about his reasons for wanting to site the library downtown. “I’m tired of the community of Oak Harbor cheaping everything out,” he said. “We need to take a step forward and try something that is bold and adventurous. I would like this to be a set piece for downtown, a jewel.”

Davis and many others believe that the draw of a downtown library would invigorate downtown businesses and help create a “critical mass” of activity. “It would create the kind of environment that a lot of people would be attracted to,” Davis said.

But members of the building committee pointed out that they went through a lengthy study and followed specific criteria to come to the conclusion that the Jerome Street site is best.

“Jerome Street still has a lot of positives,” said building committee member Carole LaFond, who is a retired school librarian. “My main concern is the kids and the seniors.”

Kathleen Shaw, chairperson of the Oak Harbor Library Board, pointed out that the library will serve all of North Whidbey, not just Oak Harbor, so the needs and wishes of the entire area should be considered.

The 40 or so residents who came to the meeting wrote down dozens of comments in support and against each of the two sites. The library board plans to compile the comments and have them available at the library.

Delores Randall and Hilary Williamham are a couple of the frequent library users who attended the forum. They both said they supported building the library downtown.

“I would like to see it downtown if we could get enough parking,” Randall said, adding that it would help the downtown area grow.

One of the positive aspects of the Jerome Street site is the proximity to the Senior Center, the pool, Oak Harbor Elementary and North Whidbey Middle schools. Another is the cost. The library would be built on top of ballfields owned by the school district, which has agreed to a free long-term lease as long as the library system pays for relocating the ballfields. The project is estimated at about $10 million.

The downtown Massey site, on the other hand, is estimated to cost $12 million because of the cost of under-building parking and buying the land. Council members, however, said the cost could be significantly reduced. Council member Sue Karahalios said she’s heard that the owners of the land may be willing to donate or lower the $595,000 pricetag.

Councilman Paul Brewer said he would be in favor of using the money from the possible sale or lease of the current library — which has been estimated to be worth from $750,000 to $1 million — to offset the cost of a downtown library. The city built the current, and very cramped, 11,200-square-foot library within the Skagit Valley College campus.

Mayor Patty Cohen agreed that money shouldn’t drive the choice. “If it’s important enough to us,” she said, “we can find the way to make it happen and find the dollars.”

In order to build a new library, the library system would have to go to North Whidbey voters to form a library capital facilities district, and separately, to approve the financing of the new library. The proposed boundary of the library capital facilities district is the same as the Oak Harbor School District boundary — from Deception Pass to Libbey Road.

The next step in the selection process seems a little uncertain. The library board is meeting next Wednesday and will likely discuss the workshop. The City Council will likely discuss the matter, and the possibility of dedicating funds from the sale of the current library, at a meeting in the next couple of months.

Under the library board’s timeline, the election to establish the capital facilities district and pass a new library is planned for the fall of 2004. If everything goes according to plans, the building would be designed in 2005 and built in 2006, with a grand opening in the fall of 2006.

Yet if the library board and City Council can’t come to an amicable agreement on the site sometime, it may affect the likelihood of voters passing the measure. Councilman Davis warned of dividing support.

“We would wholeheartedly support the downtown site,” he said, “but I think you would have half of our support for the other site.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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