By The Gazette Editorial Board
We’ve watched a lot of big, public flood-recovery projects come together in recent years.
Local government employees have moved into a revamped federal courthouse that now houses city hall, a remodeled county services building and a large new school district headquarters. A new city public works building is underway, while the central fire station is almost ready.
The convention complex is open, alongside a remodeled hotel. New Bo City Market beckons foodies, and it won’t be long before the west bank amphitheater is ready to entertain. The Paramount Theatre is already back in business.
But we think the most inclusive, open, accessible and public of all these public projects is the one opening on Saturday: the new downtown Public Library. We believe that it stands as perhaps the best and most fitting symbol of a recovery that’s admirably focused on creating a more promising future for this city from the muck of its most difficult chapter.
Thousands are expected to check out the new library on opening day. No doubt many will focus on some of the facility’s most eye-catching features, its interactive LED lighting wall, “Blue Zone” computers on desks equipped with treadmills, and maybe the huge glass windows in the auditorium that dim with the touch of a button. There’s also the green roof, planted with sedum and prairie plants watered with rain and air conditioning condensation collected in two 5,000-gallon cisterns.
An outdoor terrace, all of the free public meeting space and the ground-floor cafe will turn some heads. The building’s multiple energy-saving features, including a geothermal climate control system and lights that dim automatically based on ambient light readings, are also sure to spark some conversation. Check out the bricks from the Sinclair smokestack.
But the true heart of the new, $45 million library are its sections designed for children and teens. Once the buzz dies down and the library gets down to business, these are the places where its lasting effect on this community will be cemented.
“What is the mission of a library in the 21st Century?” said director Bob Pasicznyuk during a tour of the facility this past week. His answer, and one of the “grand themes” of the new library, is “Young minds are worth our investment.”
The children’s section is 13,500 square feet, compared to 8,000 square feet in the former library. It’s split into early childhood, elementary and teen sections. And within the early childhood segment is the “Family Connections Library,” a partnership among several local organizations serving families with young children and educators.
Among the services provided by the Family Connections Library is a teachers’ connection lab, which will offer support and resources for early childhood educators, care providers and parents. They’ll also be able to access a coordinated calendar tracking local events and activities geared toward early learners.
“The library has been an awesome partner,” said Robin Robinson, grant coordinator for Linn County Early Childhood Iowa, who called the partnership a “win-win” for the library and service providers. “Especially in the neighborhood that surrounds it.”
A block away from the library is the Young Parents Network, where Executive Director Brian Stutzman says his organization sees the library as a critical resource to help young parents prepare kids for school.
“People underestimate the value of how important it is for a parent to sit with a book in their lap and read to a child,’ Stutzman said. “It’s going to be a great resource for the whole community.”
ACCESS AND EXPERTISE
According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, more than 5,300 kids enrolled from preschool through 12th grade live in nine census tracts within roughly 1.5 miles of the library. The poverty rate for families with related children under 18 is 23.5 percent in one tract northeast of the downtown area, and the rate tops 18 percent in tracts on the northwest side and around Taylor Elementary School. In the tract where the library is located, including the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood, the Census estimates a family poverty rate of 52 percent, although the small sample size in that tract yields a large margin of error.
To those who question the relevancy of free public libraries in the age of e-readers, we think some of the best answers live in these neighborhoods. The new library will provide access to not only books but information technology and the expertise on how to harness its potential. Its “technology commons” will include 70 computers, and staff hopes to forge more community partnerships to provide expanded technology education. Some computers have been installed in rooms where parents who need access can bring their children along.
BUDGET ISSUES LINGER
Of course, the road for this project hasn’t always been smooth. In the past, there has been plenty of debate over the necessity and scope of the 94,000-square-foot library. And in the future, like many public institutions, the library’s budget picture includes uncertainties. After seeing its budget reduced by roughly $1 million following the flood, the library system is looking to city leaders to restore much of that funding. It’s also possible that the library board will ask voters in 2015 to consider raising the current tax levy that funds library operations.
But in the present, the new library’s grand opening should be a point of pride. It’s a reflection of a resilient community that truly values education and is willing to invest in its children’s future.
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Friday gala, 7-10 p.m. — Fundraiser at library, $100 ($70 tax deductible)
9-10 a.m. — Park Party (Greene Square Park)
10 a.m. — Opening remarks, ribbon cutting
Noon — Flag ceremony
1 p.m. — Time capsule dedication
3 p.m. — Sculpture dedication
All day — guided tours, Whipple Auditorium events, make and take crafts in children’s program room, Beems Auditorium events,
More information, gala tickets — www.crlibrary.org/grand-opening1/