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Downtown library won't bring 'ooohhs' 

What do we want in a downtown Raleigh library? This was the question consultant Jill Gammon posed the other night on behalf of her client, Progress Energy, to a gathering of the interested public. "How can a downtown library make our community more vibrant, exciting and inviting to Wake County citizens?"

A score of us had come--a half-dozen librarians included--and shortly our ideas were flowing onto the flip charts. It should have a cafe, we said. Comfy chairs. A bookstore. And a kids area. With movie screens. How about an auditorium?

We were just warming up. The woman next to me, Norma Kleitsch, used to live in Cincinnati. The downtown Cincinnati library is an eight-story tower of library power, she said. It covers two city blocks. There are lots of little library branches all over Cincinnati, but the downtown library is the one people go to when they want a place to go to, she added. It's got everything.

Now we were off and running. Another woman said our downtown Raleigh library should be a thing of architectural distinction, kind of like the New York Public Library is. "Half the reason to go there is to look up at the ceilings and go--ooohhh," She said. I think it was "ooohhh." Someone else mentioned great public art. Another, great exhibitions. Plasma TV screens. Lots of glass and light, It should have room for expansion. And so on.

Swept up in the moment, I said it should be in a great setting--with beautiful grounds either around the library or, more likely, since it's going to be downtown, within the cloistered walls. Anyway, I said, there's no point in having a mediocre one. Our downtown library should be the flagship of the Wake County system--like Cincinnati's.

I was under the Kleitsch influence, obviously. I had forgotten, if I'd ever known it, that the idea of a downtown Raleigh library had come from then-Progress Energy CEO Bill Cavanaugh, before he retired, in connection with a specific building that developer Harold Lichtin hopes to put up at the corner of Wilmington and East Davie streets. Which site just happens to be next to the existing Progress Energy building and is across from the new Progress Energy tower, now steaming toward completion. Lichtin's site is--sure enough--also owned by Progress Energy.

Smaller wonder, then, that Cavanaugh, once struck by the thought that Raleigh should have a downtown library like all the other great cities he's visited--I'm going by my trusty N&O here--should also have the vision to see that the perfect place to put it was inside Lichtin's building.

The only problem with this additional Cavanaugh vision: (a) Our library will have to be very small to fit inside a 10-story office building that is mostly office; (b) Once it's in there, expansion will be impossible.

Turns out, though, that the Wake County commissioners have already blessed this thing. Back in December, they agreed to create a branch of the county system in Lichtin's building--stock it for $3.4 million, run it for $1.5 million a year--if Progress Energy raised the $8-10 million to build it. It was all rush, rush, because at the time Cavanaugh and Lichtin were courting EDS (Ross Perot's computer services firm) to be the building's prime tenant, and they thought they had the hooks in. There had been time, though, to bring Raleigh's "thought leaders" aboard, men like--again, according to my trusty N&O--Orage Quarles III, the publisher of The N&O. And Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting. "You don't get opportunities like this very often," a gushing David Cooke, the Wake County manager, had said.

Apparently not. Before the deal could be done, EDS lost some big contracts (the state's Medicaid work, e.g.), and poof, no tenant and no building, at least not right now. But according to Gammon, Progress Energy and its thoughtful partners are still committed to the library, probably in Lichtin's building--assuming there is one--but not necessarily there.

I looked up Cincinnati the next day. It's a huge library. It draws 1 million users a year. It was built in 1874, replaced in 1955, added onto in 1982, and again in 1997, for a total of 542,527 square feet of library space, vast research facilities, many departments, etcetera. It brings people downtown all by itself.

Then I called Tom Moore, the Wake County library director. He'd been there the night before, and something he'd said made me think he was skeptical of the whole downtown library idea. "Not skeptical," he said. "But a downtown library should not be confused with a central library (like Cincinnati's). Because we've never talked about anything in downtown Raleigh bigger than 30,000 square feet."

Was he consulted before the Wake commissioners voted? I asked. "We didn't hear about it directly," Moore said. "We heard indirectly."

OK, so not a big library that would be a draw for the downtown, and not necessarily in a location that's going to attract anyone who's not downtown already. And not one the library people wanted in the first place.

Wake County had a small library downtown and closed it in 1985 because nobody used it. That's because nobody lives downtown--so far--and nobody who works there is going to hang around after 5 p.m. for a library that has no "ooohhh." Wake's five regional libraries (all roughly 30,000 square feet in size) and 11 smaller branches are located where people do live, and they do get used. When and if people start living downtown, that'll be time enough to add a regional library there. (We already have the State Library.)

But if the point is to create a draw for the downtown--something that will pull people in from the 'burbs and draw in some housing too--a little library isn't going to do that. That'll take a central library, or else why bother?

Parenthetically, Cooke is proposing to cut the county's support for Exploris, the downtown museum that already has an auditorium, a cafe, exhibits about the world (but not enough of them) and an IMAX theater. Maybe we could squeeze the books in there.


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