Letter to the Editor: Proposed library would enhance Smyrna in many ways

The proposed Duck Creek Regional Library is a great opportunity to stimulate revitalization of Smyrna’s historic business district, which has struggled for several decades with vacant store fronts and derelict buildings, like many of the state’s historic downtowns.

Place-based economic development stresses the importance of offering attractive, functional and community-based places, such as libraries, in downtowns and depressed neighborhoods. Like a major department store in a shopping center, libraries attract large numbers of people, creating economic opportunities for myriad businesses and organizations in the surrounding area.

Many of Smyrna’s downtown businesses are marginal, and the increased traffic would mean the difference between success and failure. Additionally, a more attractive business environment would make it easier to fill vacant downtown buildings.

The existing library had its beginnings in the Odd Fellows Hall in 1858 before moving its current location to the Town Hall and Opera House in the 1870s. The proposed location on South Main Street in the municipal parking lot is only a half block north of its current location and in the most densely populated and economically challenged section of the town. Like the current location, the proposed new location is in a walkable section of town near public schools, churches, shops and homes.

The Project for Public Spaces published an abstract in which it states “It is essential to provide people with a variety of ways to get there, including convenient transit routes, walkable streets, and adequate bicycle facilities. First and foremost, libraries should be connected to the sidewalk network.”

The Board of the Friends of the Duck Creek Regional Library have worked with neighbors over the past several months to address the concerns of individual property and business owners. As a private property owner bordering the proposed new site, I view the new library as a great opportunity to address many of the current problems plaguing the existing parking lot, including additional parking, chronic flooding from inadequate drainage and enhanced public safety by delineating the current disintegrating parking lot paving and the addition of fire hydrants.

The new library will not only address these, but will substantially improve the viability of the downtown, enhance its aesthetics and make it a more attractive for private investment.

A 2010 study by the PennFels Institute of Government of the University of Pennsylvania quantified the positive impact of public libraries, using the branches of the Philadelphia Free Public Library, each of which service about 8,652 homes, as a model. This study, like others published by The Urban Institute and The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, concluded that libraries make positive contributions to literacy, business development and workforce development, all critical factors in establishing and nurturing a viable community which is competitive in attracting investment.

Libraries also had a positive influence on home values, tax ratables and revenues. Homes within a quarter mile of a library were worth, on average, $9,630 more than homes more than a quarter of a mile from a library. Homes between a quarter and half mile from a library had an additional value of $650. The increase in home values enabled homeowners to borrow against the added value to finance education, home improvements and other items. Additional home values generated by proximity to a library also yielded additional property taxes to support municipal government and the school district each year.

The state of Delaware has provided more than $4 million in challenge funds to underwrite the cost of a modern library, which would replace the quaint current library, which is woefully inadequate in meeting the needs of one of the state’s fastest growing areas. Additionally, several private individuals, including the late Ruth Williams and Mary Turner, have provided over a half million dollars in private support, and substantial additional funds are likely from businesses and foundations.

However, the project has been stalled recently, and unless action is taken soon, the town risks losing both the state funding and some of the pledged private funding, since the wills of some of the donors have contingencies if the new library is not constructed within a specified frame. Additionally, serious fundraising has been hampered by not moving forward on consolidating the parcels on which the library would sit. Finally, a significant investment in vetting the current site including surveys, land acquisition, engineering, architectural design and other soft costs also may be lost, should the library be further delayed.

For the same investment the town makes in its current inadequate library, it would have access to a state-of-the-art library with a regional impact, since the service are is roughly that of the Smyrna School District. The library as proposed, would be operated by an independent board of directors, and the town of Smyrna would be out of the business of operating a library.

Finally, I have heard the argument from some people that the library would be a magnet for the homeless population. As a nearby resident, I can attest that the current library already accommodates the local homeless population, so moving the library north about a half a block is likely to neither increase, nor decrease, the homeless population.

In conclusion, Smyrna’s elected officials have an opportunity to move the town forward, to provide quality library services for its residents and to enhance its downtown viability. However, failure to act decisively in support of the proposed Duck Creek Regional Library will jeopardize an opportunity which will likely not become available again in a generation, and will forfeit significant capital in support of the project.

Quentin Schlieder

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