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Contrary to information presented before library vote, mayor says city eager to work with county

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

The conservative Republican majority of the Forsyth County Commission squashed hopes for a new, signature library to tie together downtown Winston-Salem and stimulate new investment, opting instead to renovate the 60-year-old current facility on West 5 th Street.

The decision came down to two downtown sites owned by the county.

The votes for adaptive reuse of the current library came from mostly suburban and elected officials, including Chairman Richard Linville of Kernersville, Bill Whiteheart of Lewisville, Mark Baker of Tobaccoville and Gloria Whisenhunt, who lives in the Buena Vista neighborhood of Winston-Salem.

Walter Marshall and Everette Witherspoon, two Democrats from the east side of Winston-Salem, along with Dave Plyler, a moderate Republican from Kernersville, favored the site of the former sheriff’s office, which opens onto the newly-named Merschel Plaza at West 3 rd Street between Liberty Street and Town Run Lane. The undeveloped park lies just below the point where Trade Street tees into West 4 th Street at the eastern end of the city’s celebrated restaurant row. The site is just to the west of the Forsyth County Hall of Justice, the Hiram Ward Federal Building and City Hall.

Conservative commissioners noted that all the proposals exceed the $28 million allocation from a bond referendum approved by voters in 2010, but

that adaptive reuse of the current facility is the least expensive option.

“We think small, and that’s where we stand,” Marshall said before the vote.

Commissioner Plyler made an argument for the site of the former sheriff’s office.

“I would like to see us build a 21 st -century, state-of-the-art, first-class library, but I think to do that we’re going to have to get as much out of that $28 million as we can,” he said. Both Commissioners Marshall and Witherspoon argued that the site would create the most economic impact for the city. Plyler said the leadership of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter indicated to him that they favored the site of the former sheriff’s office.

Conservative commissioners cited a lack of commitment by the city to improving the undeveloped Merschel Plaza in support of their reluctance to go with the site of the former sheriff’s office.

Architect Glenn Fulk, a New Yorkbased architect, was part of a contingent that turned out for the county commission vote on Oct. 10 to support the option of the old sheriff’s office.

“Winston-Salem needs to get its swagger back,” Fulk wrote in an opinion piece for the Camel City Dispatch online news site last week, which included a site plan for the old sheriff’s office location. “I submit that we double down on our emerging renaissance and place that bet on a world-class, new flagship library.”

Marco Andrade, a project planner with the City/County Planning Department, said the former sheriff’s office site ranked first in popularity during public input sessions. He added that adaptive reuse of the current library ranked first as the least costly, followed by adaptive reuse of the sheriff’s office site.

“We do not have the luxury starting from a genesis position of coming up with a wish list without focusing on the equation. And the givens in the equation are financial — $28 million,” Whiteheart said. “We do not have the luxury of starting with a design build where we can create an iconic library from scratch and estimate the values to create that iconic library, then set the bond to finance it and have the citizens speak on it. We have a bond that has been approved and we have a finite amount.”

One alternative that was not considered by the commission was locating a new library in a conceived Downtown Theatre District near the Milton Rhodes Arts Center. That option would have required the city to relocate Winston Square Park. Mayor Allen Joines said that in a discussion with City Manager Lee Garrity, they agreed that it was doubtful that the city would be willing to fund the move.

The Rev. Russ Post-May, who works with homeless people at the current library site, indicated that the county commission’s decision allayed concerns about potential displacement. Centenary United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church on Fifth, which are both close to the library, have stepped up their commitment to serving homeless people, and the management of Bib’s Downtown barbecue restaurant has not put up any objections.

“It still seems to be a very hospitable part of downtown,” Post-May said. “This is a good footprint for outreach. Just as you want to cluster cultural institutions together, there’s also a benefit to clustering outreach services together.”

Commissioner Whisenhunt indicated in her comments that the decision was constrained by competing needs of citizens in outlying municipalities.

“There’s $6 million for Clemmons and $6 million for Kernersville,” she said. “There’s not really anything that we’ve seen that’s in our budget. I do believe that we can renovate the central library in the current budget of $28 million. That’s my choice. If you go over that $28 million, who’s going to tell Clemmons to reduce their budget?” she asked. “Or who’s going to tell Kernersville to reduce theirs? We’ve made a promise to these folks, and that’s what we need to do.”

Commissioner Baker cited lack of participation by the city of Winston- Salem in developing the old sheriff’s office site in his decision to vote for the current location.

“In the presentation we saw a lot of components and hopes — hoping things would happen — but right now I don’t think there’s any indication from the city that they’re going to participate in any part of this,” he said. “I personally can’t vote for anything with a hope — hoping that something’s going to happen down the road.”

Mayor Joines said the notion that the city is unwilling to collaborate with the county on the library simply is not true, and no one from the county contacted him to ask for his perspective.

“I had a few citizens talk to me about it, and I told them it was a great idea and the city would cooperate. I’m very familiar with the library in New York City and how it ties into Bryant Park, and I could see a lot of good synergy there with that.”

County Manager Dudley Watts told commissioners that he met with City Manager Lee Garrity to determine what plans the city might have for developing Merschel Plaza.

“The city manager made it very clear that there are no funds currently or in any future plan that they have now that has any dollars associated with it for participating with the county on any project to support the library. He indicated that there had been about a $3 million in ‘unmet needs’ category for Merschel Plaza that had been part of the bond discussions that they had that did not lead to any bond referendum.”

Watts added that Garrity told him that he believed that Merschel Plaza ranked low on council members’ priority for parks and recreation projects.

Joines said that, in fact, the city has committed to using new tax revenue generated from the private redevelopment of the nearby Pepper Building to pay for both the park and an underground parking deck. The project would be financed through Certificate of Participation, tax-increment financing or a similar type of debt instrument similar to the way the city recently financed public improvements in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

Garrity said Watts’ presentation accurately reflected their conversation.

He added that Watts did not ask him about tax increment financing and he did not volunteer any information.

“Lee and I both agreed we would be willing to work with the county on that one,” Joines said.

Whisenhunt said knowing that the city has an alternate plan for developing Merschel Plaza would not have swayed her vote, arguing that the city has had ample time to reach out to the county.

She characterized the bond as a “sore spot,” noting that only two current commissioners — Plyler and Marshall — voted for it. Commissioner Beaufort Bailey was defeated by Witherspoon and Commissioner Ted Kaplan was ousted by Whiteheart in 2010.

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