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    A Times Editorial

    Proposed library puts vision, faith to test

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    Clearwater city commissioners have been accused of using too much vision and too little practicality in making public policy. That didn't prevent them from risking a decision last week that required vision and a little faith.

    City library supporters meeting with commissioners asked for enough time to try to raise millions of dollars in private donations to build a bigger, better Clearwater main library.

    Without the private donations, the city can build and furnish about 66,000 square feet of library space. That's a little more space than the current library has, but considerably less than studies indicated the city should build to serve its future population.

    Library supporters asked the city to use its money to build a bigger library, but leave about a third of the space an unfinished shell. Library supporters promised they would raise more than $3-million from private sources to finish out the space and furnish it. Depending on how much money was raised, the library could have 82,000 to 90,000 square feet of space -- close to the amount consultants said the city needs.

    Some commissioners were at first reluctant to consider building more library than the city could afford to finish. What if it sat empty for years? But the library supporters were so convincing that a majority of the commission decided to give them a chance to raise the funds.

    It won't be easy. Other organizations in Clearwater, including Ruth Eckerd Hall, are conducting or planning major fundraising drives.

    But private bequests funded a major portion of Dunedin's new $2.4-million library. And Tarpon Springs library supporters raised hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the $2.9-million cost of that city's new library. If those smaller towns could find a deep well of private support for their libraries, surely more than $3-million can be raised in Clearwater, despite the competition from other fundraising drives.

    If city commissioners are convinced that Clearwater's future growth warrants a 90,000-square-foot library downtown, it makes little sense to build one that is only 66,000 square feet and will have to be expanded soon.

    And library supporters, who have waited decades for a new library downtown, deserved a chance to try to raise the money.

    This week commissioners will take an official vote to ratify Tuesday's decisions. At the same time they should declare deadlines by which the private money must be raised. Deadlines will give the fundraising effort momentum, and besides, no one wants to indefinitely delay the library project, which was approved by voters in a July referendum.

    City commissioners deserve praise for the methodical way they have explored the library construction issue this summer. After seeing preliminary figures indicating that the city could save a lot of money by putting the new library in the city's Harborview Center, they explored the possibility, discarding it after the early numbers proved too optimistic.

    They gave some thought to whether the city needs a main library downtown if the area is not going to be redeveloped in the near future.

    They debated and heard more input on the best size for the library.

    And then in the meeting with library supporters Tuesday, they decided to think optimistically and take some risks. If commissioners vote as expected this week, the new main library will be built downtown, near the corner of Drew Street and Osceola Avenue as library supporters had hoped. And the city will build as large a library as it can afford, giving the private sector the opportunity to contribute to finishing that ambitious and worthwhile public project.

    Then, at long last, the light at the end of the tunnel will come into view for friends of the Clearwater library system.

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