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Groups gather to break ground on bigger library

By NEGAR TEKEEI

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- James Armstrong sits at a table in one corner of the South Branch Library, 1101 Country Club Way S, reading this week's Time magazine.

One of the branch's frequent visitors, the environmental specialist with the city's health department spends his lunch hour several days a week in the quiet, air conditioned library, reading newspapers and magazines. He comes here because it's near his office and in the area he is responsible for inspecting.

Armstrong is surprised at the news that the library will not be there in a year.

"They're moving this library?" he asks, eyebrows raised. And then, later: 'I'll miss a place to go during lunch.'

That same day less than 2 miles away, city officials, community leaders and a group of students from neighboring Bay Point Elementary School gathered Monday morning at an empty lot on 2300 Roy Hanna Drive to break ground for the new building.

The new South Branch will be more than twice the size of the old library. It will have more of everything: books, computers and features. It will have a multipurpose community meeting room, a teen resources room, a computer lab, a "quiet" room and an expanded reading area.

The current South Branch building, which now adjoins the Boyd Hill Nature Center, occupies 6,600 square feet. While the library received a $300,000 construction grant from the state, most of the money for the $2.7-million project comes from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

The communitywide push to relocate the South Branch library began in 1994, when the Nature Center wanted to expand its facilities and would have lost green space unless the library was able to find a new home.

Library director Mary Brown said the only other branch library to physically move is the James Weldon Johnson Branch, which currently occupies space in the Enoch Davis Center. A groundbreaking ceremony for the Johnson Branch's new location next door to the Davis Center at 1051 18th Ave. S will happen Friday.

The land for the new South Branch sits next to the Bay Village Shopping Center at 62 Avenue S and 22nd Street, a strip in which only seven of the 17 available units are currently occupied. The nine cars parked in a 350-unit parking lot are concentrated near the Hairtique salon, a Subway sandwich shop, the Pinellas Point Meat Market and Grocery store and a coin laundry at the east end of the strip. The St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church and Hungry Howie's Pizza and Subs stand at the other end of the mall, nestled between empty stores with "For Lease" signs plastered to the fronts.

Steve Jorgensen, a retail specialist with Ross Realty Group Inc., the center's real-estate agents, said the new library is expected to increase interest in the struggling center, which lost a Winn-Dixie and an Eckerd drugstore in 1994.

Larry Williams, the former City Council member for the library's district, first proposed relocating the library in 1994 after the Nature Center began discussing its own expansion. On Tuesday, he said he could foresee only a positive effect rippling from a new library in the area.

And the effect will reach beyond the corners of the Bay Village Shopping Center, as the empty space left by the old South Branch library will allow the nature park to expand and renovate its facilities.

When the library moves, patrons such as Armstrong will shift their patterns.

"The people coming to this building for a few years will miss it," said Barbara McGiffin, the South Branch's head librarian. "But access to the public will definitely be better (in the new building). I feel privileged to be a part of this since it's been such a struggle."

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