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Forsyth library bond shapes up as political fight in push to Election Day

by Keith Barber

 

To no one’s surprise, political yard signs have been popping up all over Forsyth County in recent weeks, but there is one popular sign that doesn’t endorse any particular candidate. “Vote YES for the Library Bond Referendum,” the signs proclaim, and residents like Julie Wise are proudly displaying them on their front lawns.

 

Wise, who moved to Forsyth County 12 years ago, said Winston-Salem touts itself as being the City of Arts and Innovation, but that claim rings hollow if citizens don’t invest in their public library system.

The Forsyth County Commission voted in August to place a $40 million library bond referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot. The vote was split 4-3 with Republican chairman David Plyler joining Democrats Ted Kaplan, Walter Marshall and Beaufort Bailey in favor of the measure. The funds would be dedicated to the construction and renovation of the Central Public Library on 5th Street in Winston-Salem as well as the Kernersville and Clemmons libraries.

The proposal calls for the county to spend $28 million for either a new or substantially renovated Central Public Library and $6 million each on libraries in Clemmons and Kernersville. Repairs and/ or renovations are also planned for other branches, including Carver School Road, Malloy Jordan East Winston Heritage Center, Rural Hall, Walkertown, and Southside.

Wise said both her school-aged children frequently utilize the Central Library for school purposes as well as recreational reading. The facility’s shortcomings place an undue burden on the library staff, and don’t offer an enticing environment for children, Wise said.

“Society in general is going more electronic and it’s a huge strain on all libraries on how quickly it’s converting from books and paper to electronics, so I think the bond referendum is crucial,” she said. “When the current central library was built, there wasn’t as much emphasis on natural lighting and comfort; it was built to house books. Now, the whole focus has shifted with the growth of bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders.”

The big difference between the library and the local bookstore is the simple fact that you can check out books from the library for free. Wise referred to Lady Bird Johnson’s famous quote, “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library,” to underscore the egalitarian nature of the institution, and the reason why the community leaders should support the bond referendum.

However, a number of community leaders are outspoken opponents of the bond referendum. County Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said she voted against placing the referendum on the ballot because the county’s budget has been stretched to the limit due to the current recession.

“I just think it’s terrible timing,” Whisenhunt said. “I’m embarrassed that we are asking taxpayers to help us build a library that I don’t think is necessary at this time.”

Wise disagreed with Whisenhunt’s assessment.

“This might very well be the right time economically because more and more people are using the library because they can’t afford to do otherwise,” she said. “They can’t afford to buy books, or have job training or internet access.”

The Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce has officially endorsed the bond. Chamber president Gayle Anderson rebutted Whisenhunt’s argument, saying the current state of the economy is precisely the reason Forsyth County should invest in its library system. Supporters of the bond point out that the projected tax increase necessary to pay for the bond will equal an $11.85 annual investment for a homeowner who owns a $150,000 house.

“You can’t borrow money any less expensively than you can now, construction costs are low, and this is part of the county’s [5-year] strategic plan,” Anderson said. “It’s a relatively modest amount of increase on the tax rate so we feel like it’s the best of times.”

The Forsyth County Library’s 2010-2015 strategic plan states that one of its goals is to “create inspiring library facilities that are valued as a source of community pride.”

Kevin Harper is leading the Friends of the Library Committee that is spearheading the pro-referendum campaign. Harper said Forsyth simply can’t afford not to invest in its library system.

“In this environment, it’s all about jobs,” Harper said. “To a great extent, it is not guaranteed that Winston-Salem and any of the surrounding communities of northwest North Carolina are going to achieve the kind of prosperity they want to achieve. Recruiting businesses and jobs to town, you’re competing in a marketplace and quality of life is a big consideration in that.”

At the moment, Winston-Salem stands on the threshold of greatness, Harper said. With the opening of the downtown ballpark, Wake Forest Biotech Place and the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in the past six months, the city has a lot of momentum behind it. The missing piece is a state-ofthe-art central library, Harper said.

“It adds to quality of life, which adds to economic development,” Harper said. “When businesses come to town, they see that the community cares enough to invest in their libraries. Alternately, they see that the community doesn’t care if they vote something like this down.”

Whisenhunt’s second objection is that it’s not the county’s responsibility to build libraries.

“I support bonds for the schools, for the community college,” Whisenhunt said. “I think that’s our responsibility and I think we’ve done it in a financially responsible way. I just can’t ask the citizens of this county to vote for a library bond that has not been planned. I can’t tell them where that library is going to be.”

Whisenhunt pointed out that the site of the library has not been selected, and there are not enough specifics in the library bond referendum.

“It’s pure speculation,” Whisenhunt said.

“There’s not one commissioner that can tell you where that new central library is going to be, exactly what it’s going to cost. I want to know what my money is going to be spent for. It’s a mystery bond and I don’t feel comfortable selling that to the public.”

But Winston-Salem must effectively market itself to new industry and young professionals, Anderson said. Building a new library makes a strong statement about a community’s commitment to public education.

“We have been transitioning to a knowledge-based economy for the last 20 years and having very diverse, dynamic libraries is a vital part of that transition,” Anderson said.

The Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce uses the library for many of its research needs, and sends a lot of businesses to the library for research purposes.

But when giving business leaders a tour of Winston-Salem, Anderson does not drive by the main library “because I do not want them to ask what that building is.”

The Forsyth County Public Library system boasts that 58.2 percent of the county’s 360,000 residents have a library card. More than 1.3 million people visited the library last year, checking out more than1.9 million items.

Anderson and Wise agreed that the value of the Forsyth County Public Library system is clear, but if the bond referendum fails, residents will lose a cornerstone of their community.

“My mother used to take me and my brother to the library every Thursday… so every time I walk into the library I have an emotional tie,” Anderson said. “So to me its more than the chamber or economic development. I want children today to have that experience of going into the library and having an exciting time and feeling good about it rather than going into this dark, dank low-ceiling place where you just want to get in and get out of it.”

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