Winter Park residents have a lot to consider on March 15.
From choosing a presidential favorite between the Democratic and Republican candidates to electing two city commissioners, the city has several high-profile decisions ahead of it. But the majority of the heated debates, online and in person, that have dominated the conversation and ignited residents haven't been about political issues.
Instead, they're about the library.
On Tuesday, residents will vote whether to approve $30 million in bonds for a proposed 50,000-square-foot library, 8,000-square-foot civic center and a one-level parking garage in the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Park on West Morse Boulevard and Harper Street. The current 33,000-square-foot Winter Park Public Library, which sits on East New England Avenue just blocks from Park Avenue, is not part of the Orange County Library System, and is available for free only to Winter Park residents (non-residents can purchase a card for an annual fee of $125).
The library's current building, constructed in the late 1970s, is a three-story cube-like structure with brown brick walls. In a presentation, Sabrina Smith, assistant director of the library, says the current facility is inadequate for today's residents for several reasons.
To start, the electrical system is overburdened because of outdated wiring and few electrical outlets, and library staff doesn't have enough space to run programs that can sometimes attract 100 to 200 children. The bathroom stalls are small, the staircases are too narrow and there is limited parking. Staff would also like to add computer labs, meeting rooms, event areas and more space for the collection of books.
In short, they need a 21st-century building for a 21st-century population.
For example, Smith says people who think libraries are just for housing books might find it interesting that the Winter Park Public Library runs a filmmaking program that includes 40 local teenagers. The students write, shoot and direct their own videos, which are showcased at the Enzian in the "Reel Short Teen Film Festival." The library also has a young-adult book club with about 20 to 30 members who meet in bars and restaurants nearby to discuss literature.
Library staff is excited about the project and the prospect of resources to support new, innovative programs, says Mary Gail Coffee, WPPL director of community relations. If the referendum passes, homes with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay $49 in additional taxes, while a home worth $300,000 would pay $127. With interest, Winter Park residents would end up paying $43 million over a 20-year period. The new library would be on the west side of Winter Park, an area that's underserved, Coffee says, and where new populations are emerging.
But a small group of vocal residents have come out against the project, spearheaded by Michael Poole, a local investment banker who also chairs the city's sustainability advisory board. The group formed a political action committee called Save Our Library WP that supports keeping the old library. The group started a website and passes out signs discouraging people from voting in favor of the new library referendum.
Poole and his followers oppose the new library for a host of reasons, but mainly they object to the price tag and the size of the proposed building; also, they believe strongly the library should not be moved a mile away to Morse Boulevard. The group also opposes the library being located inside the park, saying it would take up green space.
Poole says that when bond interest and increased operating costs are added to the project's expense, the new library would cost more than the $30 million the supporters are advertising. For $13 million, he says, the current library could be renovated to include additional parking, wider staircases and new equipment. Poole adds that the referendum doesn't specifically tie the new library to the park, so even if voters decide they want it, there's a possibility the library group could convince the Winter Park City Commission to change the location.
"We drain into our lakes right from the streets, polluting our lakes," he says. "So what's more important? I think people would say it's more important to keep from polluting our lakes than to build a new library. If we started prioritizing what our true needs are, the library would be at the end. That's why I think it's fiscally irresponsible."
Mary Dipboye, who is on the same advisory board as Poole, says she started out liking the idea of an updated library, but now says she opposes the project, mainly because it would impact the park and move the library out of the downtown area. Dipboye says she kind of envies Orlando's downtown library, because it has a lot of services, but that wouldn't be appropriate for Winter Park.
"It's accessible to more people in downtown," she says. "I think whatever library we end up with, it's going to have to be a flexible building, so we can move things and be able to reconfigure."
A week before the vote, those who want to keep the current library seem to be in the minority. If Facebook likes are any indication, 65 people liked Save Our Library WP's page, while 338 people have liked a page supporting the new library.
The Winter Park Chamber of Commerce's board of directors recently endorsed the project, says Patrick Chapin, the chamber's president. In a resolution, the organization acknowledged the increasing services the current library provides and the well-researched, lengthy investigation conducted by the Winter Park Library Task Force.
Chapin says the chamber typically doesn't pass endorsement resolutions on every project in town, but the library project aligned with the organization's mission to sustain a thriving business climate and would be "transformational."
"Any great city needs a great library," he says. "Home is the first place, work is the second place, but we've lost those third places that bring people together and initiate conversations. We believe the library will be another third place. The reality of what a 21st-century library will look like is exciting."
Coffee says it's "heartbreaking" to hear people say libraries are going away when nothing could be further from the truth. Last year, 175,191 people visited the Winter Park Public Library, and 21,601 people attended the 1,409 programs the library offers. Libraries aren't going away, people are just using them differently, she says.
"This is going to be an incredible investment in the children, families and businesses of our community," Coffee says. "It's going to be so exciting, and it requires a little bit of courage, but I believe Winter Park has the courage to invest in something that is spectacular for our community."