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    A Times Editorial

    Largo needs courage to stand by library plans

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 10, 2002

    At the request of Commissioner Pat Gerard, Largo city commissioners will meet in the next few days with the architect they hired to design their new library. Gerard's mission: to scrap the library design unveiled to residents weeks ago and even, perhaps, talk about downsizing the project.

    If it seems odd that Largo commissioners would even be thinking about this now, seven months after hiring the architect, three months after approving the size of 93,000 square feet on a unanimous vote, and six weeks after unveiling the architect's conceptual design to the public.

    Well, that's Largo for you.

    The city's halting, weaving path to a capital improvement project is something to behold.

    Gerard, who is serving her first term in office and is up for re-election next year, had been one of the strongest proponents of the new library. She even demonstrated that support at a commission meeting several weeks ago by proudly handing over a $1,000 donation to the library building fund.

    Along with the other commissioners, she stood up to a challenge by Commissioner Marty Shelby, who voted to build the new library but later tried unsuccessfully to convince the commission to delay and hold a referendum on the project.

    Gerard suddenly got cold feet about the size and cost of the project two weeks ago. She said she also had heard people criticize the design, calling it too similar to a "citrus packing house."

    In a June 28 memo to her fellow commissioners, Gerard said "my own concerns are increasing as well," though she did not reveal any new information to prove that the library was too big or would cost more than the city could afford. She suggested that a library with 80,000 or 85,000 square feet, built for under $20-million, might do just as well.

    This sounds much like the path Largo followed in the early 1990s when debating whether to build a city cultural center/performing arts hall. City officials spent years discussing the idea, just as they have the new library. Finally, the City Commission decided to go ahead.

    But one commissioner concluded there should be a referendum on the project and obtained a 4-3 commission vote for a referendum. Then a commission member who had voted for the referendum, the late Mayor Thom Feaster, said he had made a mistake. Largo had needed such a facility for years, he said, the money was available for the project, and commissioners were elected to make such decisions for the good of all. He changed his vote, no referendum was held, the cultural center was built and it has been a great addition to the community.

    It took courage, in a community as conservative as Largo, to vote to build a performing arts hall that at the time seemed very large and very ambitious. Now some people think the Largo Cultural Center is too small.

    It also will take courage to stand by the library project. Gerard noted in her memo that there was not anything "magical" about 93,000 square feet for the new library, but at least that is the size that was recommended by an expert hired to tell the city how much library space it would need by 2010. Gerard presented no justification for her numbers of 80,000 or 85,000 square feet; it seemed they were just more comfortable to her.

    Fortunately for those who support the new library, Gerard was not able to convince her fellow commissioners to immediately back off the 93,000 number; everyone merely agreed to sit down in private chats with the architect to explore design changes.

    There is nothing wrong with hearing the architect's thoughts about his design and sharing their own reactions (though why not do so in a public meeting and let residents participate?), but commissioners should understand that reactions to architecture are personal and no design will win rave reviews from everyone.

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