CARS HOMES JOBS

No sign of action at new Schenectady library site

Sunday, April 27, 2014
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John Karl stands in front of the former flea market lot at 954 State Street in Schenectady that will the be the location of a new branch library.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
John Karl stands in front of the former flea market lot at 954 State Street in Schenectady that will the be the location of a new branch library.

— John Karl and his Friends have funds available for Schenectady’s new library.

They’re just waiting for construction to begin at the branch. Right now, nothing is happening at 954 State St., the site of a former flea market and now a vacant lot occupied by three large trees, an old metal fence and a mix of grass and pavement. It’s between Eagle and Hawk Streets.

Library officials say they’ve been told the new library is supposed to open in early 2015.

That’s about nine months. County officials say they are not working with a timetable.

“I don’t have a definite timeline,” said Tony Jasenski Sr., chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature, speaking after several people asked about the project at Tuesday night’s legislature public forum at the library’s central branch. “We were hoping to have the groundbreaking in the very near future, it hasn’t happened yet. Even though some of the approvals have taken place, we don’t have all of them yet. We were hoping this would all be done by the end of the year or shortly thereafter — open for business.”

The county is currently working with a developer who owned the property and is donating it for county use. A commercial business will also be built on the site, close to the library.

Karl, president of the Friends of Schenectady County Public Library and a former member of the library’s board of trustees, is concerned about the process as it relates to construction schedules. “It’s getting closer to summer,” he said. “Construction people are lining up all their other work. To get something done in that time frame is going to be tough.”

He has other concerns, too.

The new library is expected to be named after Phyllis Bornt, a longtime library volunteer and benefactor. It will replace the Duane branch, which will close when the new building opens. The Hamilton Hill branch was shut down in late December 2013, when the Carver Community Center closed.

Karl and other volunteer friends of the library have a more immediate project to worry about. They’re preparing for the Friends’ spring book sale, the group’s first large fundraiser of the year, which will be held Saturday and Sunday, May 3 and 4. Forty thousand books will be stacked on tables Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. A bag sale will clear remaining stock on Sunday, May 4, from 1 until 3 p.m.

One reason the Friends have money to spend is the sale. Karl said each major seasonal book sale generates between $18,000 and $20,000 in revenue. Proceeds from a mid-winter book sale, from sales at the Friends’ Whitney Book Corner, online book sales and library membership contributions bring the annual total to between $140,000 and $150,000.

Karl said raising funds for the new library — and the existing nine branches — is not the problem. The problem, he believes, rests with what he calls the Legislature’s declining support of library personnel.

“We have money available which would be sufficient for all programming,” Karl said. “The problem is the libraries don’t have the staff to expand. We have money available for increased additions to the collection, books and media. The problem is with the reduced staff, they don’t have the people to order the materials and process the materials.”

“My concern is, once the facility is in place and all the bills are paid, is there going to be county support to sustain it in terms of personnel and hours and things of that sort?” Karl asked. “Programming, from our perspective, is not a problem.”

In the past, the Friends have dipped into their treasure chest for larger expenditures. “When the new addition [at the main branch] was reaching completion, the then-Library Director Andy Kulmatisky got word from the county that they were not going to fund the building of the mezzanine, which is where the board room and activity rooms are,” Karl said. “They were just going to cut that out of the construction.

“We asked them, ‘How much do you need for that?’ And he said, ‘A quarter of a million dollars.’ Within two days, he had a check on his desk for a quarter of a million dollars from the Friends. That’s what we do.”

Library director Karen Bradley is glad for the Friends’ contributions.

“Most of the library’s nine-branch programing funds are primarily Friends of the Library funding,” she said. “We do have some grant funding — always, we’re always pursuing grants for programming things — but the major source of programming here is the Friends of the Library funding. They have told us, ‘You tell us what you need as plans develop, what can we do to help you?’ So they’re very strong supporters.”

In anticipation of the new library, Bradley has attended local community meetings designed to gather input to help plan the building and programming. Discussions with the project architect, regarding more serious design decisions, are ahead.

“We have our preliminary sketch, of course, but the one that will go out to bid is much more detailed, of the real, nitty-gritty guts of the building. That’s the phase we’re going to be entering. Ultimately, I’ve gone to all these outreach programs around the community, and the first thing I’m asked everywhere is, ‘Hey, do you have a picture, a sketch of what it’s going to look like?’ Everybody wants to know, it’s been great.

“Some people have said, ‘Could we have a big banner put up on the lot when you have that sketch ready? A big sign, give us hope that something’s coming?’ I said, ‘I’ll definitely pass that on to the powers that be.’”

Marva Isaac, president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association, is one of the people who has high hopes for the new building.

“The kids need a library,” she said. “It’s too far for kids to go to other libraries, Mont Pleasant or the main library, especially when it snows. We really need a library, lots of people will use it — I will use it.”

Bradley said getting the right programming means working with program partners.

“When we talk with people, it’s looking at who’s providing existing programming and many of our groups doing literacy-focus programming are looking for other places to take programming out to,” she said.

“So we’re certainly looking at grant opportunities to help fund some of that. We’re looking at what internally can we do here with the staff we have ... the supplemental is, of course, our Friends of the Library funding of programming. So there’s a variety of sources, but there are so many great grant opportunities out there, so if we tackle, say one piece such as financial literacy, there are different funding opportunities for that kind of programming. We have some great resources within the county, so we’re having some wonderful conversations with other non-profit groups in the area to corroborate.”

The new library has stirred up interest in the State Street area, and also among people who just love libraries.

“They care about the rest of the community that we serve and they know there are some people whose service has now been reduced up there,” Bradley said. “So as library and literacy advocates, they’re very interested.”

Karl would like to see more progress. He said he has been invited to sit in on meetings of the county Building Committee and said there hasn’t been a meeting since the beginning of the year.

“The last we heard was an interior design had been done,” Karl said. “I’ve not seen any plans for the exterior, which I suggested should be a knock-your-socks off type of thing to make the community proud.”

Legislator Karen B. Johnson, also in attendance at the Tuesday forum, said the library project has received the top level of attention. The process, she said, just takes time.

“We’re building a building we hope will last a long time,” she said. “We have to get all the details right.”

Karl is already afraid the new building, planned for 4,600 square feet, will be too small. He said the Rotterdam branch has 10,000 square feet; the Niskayuna branch has 8,000 square feet.

“What they’re looking to do is make this a true community resource, and I think it’s going to be so darned cramped,” Karl said. “It’s not going to be as effective as it could be.”

 
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