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Downtown claims library site

It looks like members of the Oak Harbor City Council and boosters of city commerce will get their way on the site of the proposed new library.

Members of the library building committee recently decided to change their top choice for the library site from Jerome Street to a property downtown on Bayshore Drive.

Mary Campbell, managing librarian at the Oak Harbor Library, said the switch-a-roo came about after city council members argued strongly in support of the downtown site during a workshop two weeks ago.

Campbell said she hopes the change will spur city officials to help get the library built and possibly do more to improve the surrounding downtown area.

“Either site would work out to be a very good library,” she said. “Now we’re looking for support from the city council, especially in terms of monetary support.”

The library site issue is scheduled to be on the Feb. 17 city council agenda. Campbell said the library is asking the members to endorse a resolution stating that they support the site selection process; they support the downtown site; and they are willing to commit the funds from the possible sale of the current city-owned library to building the new library.

Councilman Richard Davis, a vocal proponent of the downtown site, said he’s “very pleased” the committee is now recommending a building near the waterfront. He said the council members will likely support the proposed resolution — including the money commitment — though some technical issues will have to be worked out.

“I really strongly believe,” he said, “that the library can make a major contribution to a vibrant downtown, the core of our community,.”

The library building committee and consultants spent about three years researching potential sites for the proposed 35,000-square-foot library in the city and narrowed it down to the two properties. The Bayshore Drive or Massey site is an empty lot at the intersection of Pioneer Way and Bayshore Drive, next to Hal Ramaley Park. The proposed library would be a two-story building with parking underneath and views of the harbor. It is estimated to cost $12 million.

The proposed Jerome Street site would be built on top of a couple of school-owned ballfields adjacent to the Vanderzicht Memorial Pool. The large site would allow for a single-story building and plenty of parking. It was estimated to cost $10 million.

Although it’s the more expensive option, city council members strongly urged the library building committee — the group of local citizens who make a recommendation — to pick the downtown site. The councilors argued that a downtown library would be a big boost to the commercial waterfront area.

On the other hand, North Whidbey residents who attended a recent forum on the site selection seemed pretty well split on the issue. About 50 people turned out for the informal show-and-tell and input gathering session.

One resident, for example, wrote that, “Putting the library downtown will add an anchor to downtown, improving everything about the area and adding reasons to go there.”

Another resident pointed out that: “Parking is better at Jerome Street; $2 million less expensive than downtown; accessible to Senior Center/swimming pool/people; very few traffic problems.”

According to Campbell, folks can read the complete list of comments at the library check-out desk. She said most of the library-goers she’s talked to have opinions about which spot is best, but they’re more concerned about “how to get the new library and doing so with the smallest amount of argument.”

Nobody, it seems, questions the need for a new library. The library moved to the 11,500-square-foot building within the Skagit Valley College campus 10 years ago. At the time, the library was estimated to need about 21,000 square feet, but it was crammed into the smaller space.

Nowadays, an estimated 700 people visit the library each day, a number which grows to around 1,000 visitors during the busy summer months. This can cause some pretty major parking problems in the lot the library shares with the recently-expanded Skagit Valley College.

If the city council passes the proposed resolution, the site recommendation will go on to the Sno-Isle library board for final approval. Under the proposed timeline, North Whidbey voters (within the Oak Harbor School District boundary) will vote next fall on the proposed creation of a library capital facilities area and a bond to fund the construction.

The plan is to open the new library in the fall of 2006.

Yet in addition to the library, both Davis and Campbell believe that more can and should be done to revitalize the downtown area. Campbell said she hopes that city officials roll up their sleeves and get to work on other projects, such as the forgotten plan to build a plaza with parking on one of the empty downtown lots.

“It’s not only the library that’s going to make our waterfront percolate,” Davis said, “but it’s a key component of helping to create a vibrant downtown.”

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

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