LIBRARY LIMBO The City of Pensacola will get a new downtown public library by June 2011. A 16,000-square-foot addition will be built on the site of the old Spring Street fire station and will be connected by a mostly glass, two-story lobby area to the renovated old building, forming a 44,000-square-foot library complex. The project will cost $7.6 million and will be paid for with $6 million in local option sales tax dollars, $606,500 U.S. Department of Energy grant and $1 million left over from the Tryon Branch Library construction.
Hooray, right? Well sort of. This construction is the first major renovation at the downtown library, which has also served since 1967 as the headquarters for the West Florida library system under the leadership of the City of Pensacola.
When it was opened 43 years ago, Lyndon Johnson was president. Bob Snow had just opened Rosie O’Grady’s on Government Street. Roger Staubach, Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, was playing for the Pensacola Navy Goshawks. The first students attended fall classes at the University of West Florida.
Twenty five years later, the downtown library was an antiquated eyesore that struggled to meet the needs of the community. When the voters passed the first local option sales tax in 1992, the Pensacola City Council didn’t include any major renovation or expansion of the facility. When the sales tax option was renewed seven years later, the city council allocated $4 million for a new downtown library.
Good news, right? No.
As so often happens in Pensacola, the city council patted itself on the back for its decision and then did nothing else. It was quickly recognized that the $4 million wasn’t enough to do the job. The council toyed with creating a library taxing district, but failed to do it. They refused to reallocate local option sales tax dollars, and even though their property tax revenues jumped over 73 percent, the council didn’t budget any of those funds for the library construction.
The library sat in limbo for another eight years. In 2007, the local option sales tax was extended again, this time under the name “Penny for Progress.” An additional $2 million was added to the $4 million that was set aside back in 1999.
Finally the city council seemed serious about doing something, but it would take another three and half years before the city would be ready to break ground on the facility.
Next month the Pensacola City Council will celebrate the start of the construction of the new downtown library. Lyndon Johnson will have long since passed away, but his actions on civil rights paved the way for Barack Obama to be our first African-American president. Bob Snow has moved on, but Rosie’s has expanded into the Seville Quarter complex and is still going strong. NAS Pensacola no longer has a football team, but UWF is talking about starting one.
Much has changed in the past 43 years. Let’s hope our city government’s attitude towards our public libraries has, too, or, at least, it’s sense of urgency in accomplishing what it professes to support.