The debate over building a new library downtown has put a spotlight on cultural and political fault lines in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Much as is the case with our polarized politics nationally, people talk past each other and view things locally from completely different perspectives. They might as well be living on different planets.
To the downtown library’s supporters, opponents are seen as uninformed naysayers who are stubborn obstacles to progress in Baton Rouge.
To the library’s opponents, the library’s supporters are viewed as social engineering elitists intent on squandering their tax dollars on a downtown redevelopment project that has little to do with the library’s mission.
There are elements of truth in points each side makes, but since neither side is listening to the other, no minds are being changed.
Hence, a standoff.
The more attractive message, because it is positive, is the one presented by the supporters of building a new downtown library. Still, they’ve had trouble selling it.
Library Board of Control Chairwoman Kizzy Payton has acknowledged that the board needs to work harder to inform the Metro Council, which controls the purse strings, on the merits of the project.
The plans call for tearing down the existing 32-year-old downtown River Center library and building in its place a new 57,000-square-foot facility that would be nearly twice the size of the current building.
Mayor-President Kip Holden’s budget for 2011 included $19 million in dedicated library tax funds for the project, as the library board requested. Total costs for the project have been estimated at $21.4 million, including an underground parking lot with 46 spaces.
But the money can’t be spent without the approval of a seven-vote majority of Metro Council members, since the council has to sign off on all architectural and construction contracts associated with the project.
Supporters say a new library with the latest in technology, special educational components for students and conference rooms for businesspeople and social groups would be a tremendous asset to downtown Baton Rouge.
It’s been described as a crown jewel for North Boulevard Town Square, a focal point for civic and cultural attractions downtown. Supporters also point out that voters were told when they voted to renew an 11.1-mill property tax in 2005 that part of the money would be used to build a new library downtown.
But opponents question building a lavish library downtown when the current downtown library has some of the lowest circulation and gate-count figures among the system’s 13 libraries — lower than branches half its size.
Opponents argue that the existing building could be satisfactorily renovated at much less cost and that the savings could be used to upgrade existing libraries that are more heavily used and also to provide them with more computers and programs.
Moving forward with building a new downtown library at this particular time is problematic, politically speaking.
The economy is doing poorly, and city-parish officials say there is no money in the till for badly needed projects such as replacing dangerous, deteriorated bridges.
While the library tax millage is dedicated solely for library purposes, all the general public sees is the city-parish building a costly library at the same time it can’t keep bridges open or neighborhoods safe from crime.
To some extent, it’s the suburbs versus the city. Some might also say it’s also a black versus white issue. But there are plenty of black people in north Baton Rouge neighborhoods who question the amount of public money spent on downtown projects.
For politicians — Metro Council members and the mayor — it’s an uncomfortable position when constituents are at sword’s point on public policy questions such as building a library.
Greg Garland is a general assignment and projects reporter for The Advocate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.