Franklin: “Let’s not put the cart before the horse”

by Robin Kemp

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners’ October 26 work session started with floor plans for a new three-story, 85,000-square-foot county administration building on the present site of the shuttered Jonesboro Library. It ended with a majority of the board, including new District 1 Commissioner Dr. Alieka Anderson, calling for a more detailed look into what kind of replacement library should be built in Jonesboro–and that those plans include the public.

District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin also said county code gives the BOC, not anyone else, the authority to close the building, and that the BOC as a whole had not approved the new county complex.

That would be right on top of the present library building, which opened in 1966 two decades after members of the Jonesboro Women’s Club started a modest library–with books from the Works Progress Administration–above a department store that used to be where the bank is now. The current Jonesboro Library branch building was the founding site of what is now he Clayton County Library System. And many residents, including Mayor Joy Day and Councilwoman Pat Sebo-Hand, have expressed dismay that the county would repay Jonesboro by reducing its literary landmark to a small multimedia room in a corner of the proposed administrative complex.

“The recommendation is to demolish 120 and 124 Smith Street,” Director of Buildings and Maintenance Ben Hopkins told commissioners Tuesday night. “That’s our HR building and Jonesboro Library, and we’d build the new county administration building on the corner lot, facing the Lee Street Park.”

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Hopkins said the project made sense because the City of Jonesboro is building its new City Center just across the park and has just finished the Broad Street redevelopment across the street. What’s more, he said, the Jonesboro Library has problems with the roof and the HVAC system and lacks accessible restrooms.

“One of the major AC units has failed,” Hopkins said. “The other one is working and keeping it environmentally friendly for the stuff that’s in the space, but it’s not really good enough for people. The existing ductwork is old and it’s run improperly for our current standards, so we’d want to go through and fix that. The roof on the building, we have a quote from Garland, who’s our roofing representative, saying it could be up to $700,000 in our current environment to replace the roof, on a 7,000-square-foot-building. For context, when we replaced the roof on this building four years ago, it was $280,000.”

He added, “The restrooms are very small. They’re not ADA-compliant. The HR building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’re not ADA-compliant in dealing with people who need to go upstairs and talk to (Human Resources) Director (Pamela) Ambles and other meetings, and it has some other smaller issues. But it’s not the highest and best use for the county.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act does make certain exceptions for existing buildings where barriers to access cannot be readily removed. In those cases, alternate accommodations that allow equal participation for people with disabilities must be provided under federal law. For example, a historic building with narrow doorways that cannot accommodate a wheelchair would be exempt. In the case of a 1960s library with inaccessible restrooms, one alternative might be to construct an architecturally-compatible addition for accessible restrooms.

Clayton County has been plagued with leaky roofs on its public buildings, particularly those with flat roofs. The Clayton County Health District in particular has had this problem, the Headquarters Library is undergoing roof repairs, and the Morrow Branch has a leaky skylight.

Hopkins then unveiled the concept: “Because I know that’s what everyone wants to see–the picture”:

He revealed a few floor plans that he said were early designs in progress. “We’re still working through the logistics and making sure everything is together. We met with these departments to see what they’re looking for long-term from a programmatic standpoint.”

A secure two-story lobby would stand on the corner facing Lee Street Park. “You have a public corridor that has a public elevator, public restroom, and right at the front of the building is that library media center. That could be open by itself without the rest of the building being open. We could lock up the rest of the building.”

County officials had suggested that a smaller media room in the new county administration building could replace the existing full-size Jonesboro Library branch. Library users expressed outrage over the plan, while both Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner DeMont Davis argued that library books have been replaced by digital technology. The Clayton Crescent examined that claim, which does not take into account issues such as greater content retention with print versus digital reading, the early learning experiences involved with teaching children to read and handle books, and periodic obsolescence of digital retrieval technologies that people use to read digital texts. Another criticism opponents of the closure had was whether the public would have access to such a media room when county offices were closed.

Hopkins said children at Lee Street Elementary could be “seeing this and thinking about how cool it would be to be a part of government and being able to one day sit in the chairman’s chair or one of the other commissioner’s chairs.”

The plan, Hopkins said, “is to bring our recommendation to your next board meeting for you to approve that as our designated location for the new admin building.”

Aerial conceptual drawing of the proposed Clayton County Administration Building. Lee Street Park is on the top left, while Lee Street Elementary is on the top right. Commissioner Felicia Franklin said that no one had sought the BOC’s authorization to close the Jonesboro Library Branch and that the BOC has jurisdiction over openings and closings of county buildings. Franklin, along with Commissioners Gail Hambrick and Dr. Alieka Anderson, told city staff the public needed a library, as well as input into the process of creating one.

Other commissioners were less enthusiastic about swapping a whole library for a room.

“So are we not looking for another space for the Jonesboro Library?” asked Commissioner Gail Hambrick.

“That’s not part of this project,” Hopkins replied.

“Are we doing that?” Hambrick said. “Are we going to replace the library?”

BOC District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick: “So are we not looking for another space for the Jonesboro Library?”

“I don’t think we have the funding for another library in Jonesboro,” Chairman Jeff Turner said. “But, Mr. CEO?”

Detrick Stanford explained, “In the 2021 program, there is an additional library but, of course, that was slated for District One. Of course, we had determined the location there. Part of the discussion has been talking to other funders to look at a partnership, potentially. The Rosenwald School came up as a potential location, and we’re still talking to the City of Jonesboro as well about some potential locations there. But as Director Hopkins alluded to, we don’t have a funding source to do the 2021 library in District One and do an additional library on top of that. So we thought it was prudent to add an element of a library into the admin building.”

“I don’t think the residents of Jonesboro want us to bother with that Rosenwald building,” Hambrick said. “You know, it’s historical and all. So please, let’s think of something else, other than that. If we were to do something with that building, I would want us to remain–“

“Make it a historical site,” said Commissioner Alieka Anderson.

“Exactly,” Hambrick replied.

“Got it. Well, I’m only providing perspective to some citizens [who] offered up some other location to consider,” Stanford said. “We haven’t landed on an additional location to replace the Jonesboro Library, but we are in conversations with the city and other partners about what might be a potential opportunity.”

Commissioner Felicia Franklin questioned whether the BOC’s authority as a whole had been circumvented in closing the Jonesboro Library.

“I understand that Operations does fall under a different area,” she said. “But as I look through our county code, the opening and closing of buildings has to come before this board. So when we are talking about, now all of a sudden, presenting the building, we knew that there was going to be a new building. But, at the same token, this board had not voted on a specific place for that building, and we’re not voting on renderings. But again and still, there’s been some level of communication to the public as if it’s been brought to this board.

“So focusing on process, I want to say, number one, let’s be very careful how we communicate ‘the Board of Commissioners.’ If it does not come before this board for a vote, then it comes directly from someplace else other than this board,” Franklin continued. “It’s totally unfair to us as commissioners, for us to find out from mayors and from everyone else, that, number one, a library’s shut down, number two, that there are plans to demolish it, and now we’re finding out about it several months later and bringing it before the board. That’s totally not something that I would say is in line with either best practices or for the best communication for the board members who are going to have to answer these questions. So that’s the first thing I do need to put on record.”

Minutes from the January 12 Library Board meeting indicate Deputy Director Scott Parham, who also has served as assistant director of project management and development, that the library would not be reopening. Board member Brenda Harrison had requested that the broken HVAC unit at the branch be repaired.

Jan. 12, 2021 Clayton County Library Board minutes indicate Deputy Director Scott Parham told the board “the Jonesboro Branch is closed indefinitely. There currently is no reopening date.”

As for the conceptual drawings, Franklin said, “it’s really good that you all are bringing it before us, but I would like for us to be able to look a little bit further, number one, to make sure that we replace that library. It’s only fair to the community. And the community needs to be involved.”

“Understood,” Hopkins said.

BOC District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin said it was “totally unfair… for us to find out from mayors and from everyone else, that, number one, a library’s shut down, number two, that there are plans to demolish it.”

“And let’s make sure that whatever we build is not leaking like our new facility,” Franklin added. “It doesn’t make any sense, and I’m sorry. There’s no better way to put it. It doesn’t make any sense to spend taxpayer dollars, and to hire companies, spend millions of dollars with companies, and we bring these companies in, but yet and still, we’ve got buildings that are leaking, that are going on and on, with issues with air conditioners. Same problem that you’re telling me about, this library’s the same problem we’re dealing with at the new facility. So I really want to make sure you all are on your A game, and that you all are are responsible, because we’re responsible to the citizens, and that you’re going to be responsible to make sure that we’re not passing the buck, ‘it’s not my fault.’ You have to present the information to us. We have to have some level of trust in you. So we need to dig a little deeper into this project.”

“I absolutely agree with that, Commissioner,” Hopkins said, “That’s why I started the presentation with the core team.”

That team includes Hopkins, PDC Assistant Director Marty Fox, Steve Defelippi (a senior project manager for Nelson Worldwide), and Stanford, who is acting as project sponsor.

“The buck stops with me, as I am the Clayton County person who is responsible,” Hopkins said. “I can tell you that there’s not a member of this team that has told anyone of our location. Where that got out to the public, I can’t speak to that, but I can tell you that it didn’t come from Ben Hopkins or Marty Fox or Detrick Stanford. It’s out there. We wanted to be prudent and come tell you this is our recommendation. If this board comes back at our board meeting and says, ‘No, we don’t want to go there,’ then we will bring you a different location. We’ve done some diligence on some other locations, but this is the location that I brought to this board four years ago, and I said, ‘This is a library that has severe problems.’ I’m currently dealing with other buildings that have had problems for 25 years or longer! So we are doing our diligence, and that’s why it takes us a little longer to get through the process, because we want to make sure that we are checking all of the boxes before I bring you information.”

Newly-sworn-in BOC District 1 Commissioner Dr. Alieka Anderson: “Libraries are important for our students, for our kids, for our community.”

Anderson said, “So when we’re looking at different places for the library, I know you told us about the Rosenwald School. Where are some other potential places and can you all start to look for those potential places that you know where we could put this library? Because we all know that libraries are important for our students, for our kids, for our community. And so we need to make sure that we can have somewhere for our children and for everyone in the community to be able to work within our library. So please, just give me–what are some of the other potential places that we can look at?”

“Commissioner, a couple of things that’s going into that discussion is, what type of library do we want?” Stanford said. “One of the things we’re looking at is getting out of our old footprint. Having a library that you go in and it’s a bunch of books, and we’re going to more digitized opportunities, we’re looking at immersive opportunities where you have interaction. And so one of the things we talked about, one of the libraries that we looked at as a potential opportunity, is looking at what we call ‘The Apple Store Concept.’ And the deal there is that, when you walk in, it’s an open platform, and you have storytelling in the background, so you have visuals behind them, you have a storyteller up front, and imagine school-age kids sitting in this circle, and seeing the actual interactive opportunity in that space. So we’ve been very fortunate with [Clayton County Library System] Director Lett and some of the resources the library system has provided, whether it’s e-books, whether it’s having My Fis, it’s trying to figure out ways–they have a drone class at the library, they do stuff that’s out of the tradition for that space. So one of the things we’re looking at is to make sure that, whatever the pivot point for this board, as to the type of function you want that library to have, it’s easier for us to then determine the location for that type of facility. But primarily because it is stationed in Jonesboro, we wanted to make sure we looked at property that’s within this area, so that therefore we’re not duplicating some other efforts throughout the county.”

Anderson said the board needs more information before it can make a decision.

“So can I ask you all to bring back to the board some properties, start looking for those properties, bring them back to the board so that we will, you know, look at the different types of libraries, know where you actually want to put these libraries, and also, bring us also the different types of libraries, because we all need to know,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t know the digital area of libraries. And some people may want to have books in there. You know, people want to bring their kids in. So bring all that to the board, so we will know what we’re looking at, what’s the potential, and where we’re going.”

“I would like for us to take it a step further,” Franklin added, “and let’s go out and look at some of the other libraries….With my career, I travel throughout the state and I see the majority of the libraries that are being built. I think it would be beneficial for us as a board to be able to look at some other libraries so that we could see them, and then we can decide what we want as opposed to staff providing us what you all feel is best. Because we know the community. We’re talking to the community. And then that way, we can relay the information back to the community so that they can be involved in that process.

Franklin added, “I hear a lot about the digital divide and it’s great. But I’m not sure if you all are aware, but Clayton County is actually the largest user of the PINES system in all of the State of Georgia. We owe it to our community to make sure that we take our time and do this right. So our parents are still checking out books, hardcover books. And they’re doing all the other digital things, as well. But there’s a mix, and I think it would benefit our board to go take a look at some options, and as the newest commissioner stated, looking at some other places that we can put that library. Let’s not put the cart before the horse.”

Stanford replied, “Well, let me go on record. I apologize if it was interpreted that I was saying ‘do away with books.’ I was just saying that there are some other alternatives that we’re looking at to try to make our library system even more expansive. So, point well taken and we’ll try to put together some tours.”

“And I do have one more thing that I do have to add,” Franklin said. “It goes to communication and process. (>>) Every board member has somebody appointed to the library. Every board member up here. I know I have constant communication. The board members on that side were left in the dark, just like us. We’ve got to do a better job on communicating. On both ends.”

Commissioner DeMont Davis asked, “Was there ever a decision made to get rid of that library?”

“No, sir,” Stanford said.

“‘Cause I’ve gotten calls from many relating to that,” Davis said. “‘Are you getting rid of the library?’ And my comment has been, ‘There’s been no decision made yet on that.’ But Commissioner Hambrick just brought something up. Is that [Rosenwald School] building a historic site?”

“Yes,” Stanford said.

“Not to beat a dead horse,” Turner said, “but I’ve had conversations with the mayor [Joy Day] and so forth, and I reassured her and everyone else I spoke to that this board hasn’t made a decision one way or the other. We support a library in some form or fashion in this community. So that needs to continue to be the message until this board ultimately comes up with a decision as to if and where–well, not if, but where–our new library should go.”

Our coverage

October 8, 2021: “Jonesboro library fans angry at closure” (examines the controversy in depth and traces the history of the Jonesboro Library, which was the founding branch of the Clayton County Library System)

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