The second public meeting regarding the future of the Gulfport Library was held yesterday in Gulfport. Apparently the county, which seems to have always been more willing to consider keeping the building than the City of Gulfport has, is asking for the parties who are interested in the preservation of the library to put together proposals for its future. However, and this is a big however, the county made it clear that they have no intention whatsoever of putting a library back into the building, even if it were a branch library (this building was until Katrina the main library for the whole county-wide system). It doesn’t seem like either the county or the city are willing to actually take part in any of these citizen-initiated proposals–citizens are on their own to raise the money, staff the place, and otherwise keep it a going concern.
Here’s some excerpts from the WLOX report on the meeting:
Despite strong views from several sides, there appears some promise, perhaps of compromise regarding the fate of the landmark building.”The board of supervisors is telling you that we will not put a library back at that building. Not that we’re committed necessarily to demolishing the building. That might be in the future. That remains to be seen based on proposals that we get,” supervisor Marlin Ladner told those gathered for the library meeting.
. . .
Supervisor Ladner was responding in part to comments from Debra Peterson, who said the county seemed intent on tearing down the historic building.
“They have given the public no indication that they are willing to negotiate on any fact whatsoever. And that there is no flexibility,” she said.
The citizens group fighting the save the library building presented a proposal calling for a multi-use auditorium on the ground floor and perhaps a small library on the second floor.
“Even it it’s just a small law library or genealogy library. Then put the Joseph T. Jones memorial multi-use auditorium on the bottom, just like these plans say,” said Rosemary Finley, a descendent of the Jones family and a member of “We the People,” the citizens group pushing to save the building.
It’s a Survivor
There are two ways you could define the damaged Gulfport Library building:
1. “This building has been damaged in not one but two hurricanes in the last 40 years.” This seems to be how FEMA, the City, the County, etc. think of it.
2. “This building, unlike thousands of other buildings, has survived two monster hurricanes that hit it almost dead-on.” This is the position of We the People and, of course, me.
Other, newer buildings of steel construction, such as the First Baptist Church a block over, did not survive even one hurricane and there’s no guarantee that any new building constructed in the place of the Gulfport Library would survive either. Furthermore, I haven’t seen any discussion of why it’s inconceivable to insure the current building but completely reasonable to build and insure a new building. The new building would be in the exact same spot, geographically speaking, as the current building, so wouldn’t it be just as susceptible to hurricanes? It’s not as if a new building would be more solidly built–the library is constructed of steel and masonry which is about as sturdy as you can get, and with its large window walls, the first floor can function as a wash-through space–the trendy thing to do now on new construction on the Coast.
Unless these public officials are officially saying that there’s no use building anything new on the beachfront in Gulfport because the insurance is too high and the threat from hurricanes is too much (in which case, why in the world should private investors build there?), then they shouldn’t selectively make those arguments against this one particular building.
Questions That Need Answering
In my opinion, FEMA’s part in this shouldn’t be overlooked. Why isn’t FEMA willing to bend its funding rules for the National Register-eligible Gulfport Library, when they obviously bent them enough to put millions of dollars into the (beautifully done) restoration of historic Beauvoir a few miles up Beach Blvd.? For the record, Beauvoir has been damaged by who-knows-how-many hurricanes over its 160-year lifespan, and it’s of frame (yes, timber-frame, but still not steel and masonry) construction. Will FEMA be helping with repairs to Beauvoir in future storms? Everything I’ve heard about Gulfport Library indicates that FEMA’s threat not to help with the repair of Gulfport Library in the future is a major contributing factor in the county’s decision to demolish it. Has the city or county asked FEMA to clarify the distinction between these two properties when both are considered “historic” and both are “public”? (I won’t get into the fact that Beauvoir is, in fact, owned by a private non-profit organization.)
I want Gulfport/Harrison County to have a main library safe from the constant threat of storms too, but surely there has to be a way that FEMA will fund both the renovation of the library and the building of a new main library north of town (i.e., Orange Grove)? Why are private citizens being told “you’re on your own” when they want to save a public place in their own city? Is We the People’s proposal so ridiculous? Doesn’t Gulfport need a civic meeting space? What is unworkable about having a small specialized library (or research center, if you want to call it that) on the upper floor? The question isn’t why should this building be repaired, but why shouldn’t it? Why don’t the leaders of Gulfport and Harrison County think that it is important to the revitalization of their community to maintain this one public space overlooking Gulfport’s waterfront that every citizen can enjoy? Has public space become such a bad word? And what about the stimulus bill? Other communities are already getting all their paperwork together for large civic projects, why couldn’t this project be funded through that money?
From where I’m standing, these questions haven’t been answered to date because neither the City nor the County nor FEMA are really interested in getting them answered. They have been forced kicking and screaming by the National Preservation Act into participating in public meetings on a topic that is obviously near and dear to at least a good number (maybe or maybe not a majority–I’m not a pollster) of their constituents; but that doesn’t mean they have to like it or allow it to be a real process of discussion and debate or productive in any way. It takes two to tango, and unfortunately, I think we’re missing a partner at this dance.