For weeks now, there has been spirited and constructive dialogue on these oped pages about the fate of the Rutland Free Library at Court and Center Streets. Like others in our community, I was stunned by the news there were plans to move the library. Given this could be a fateful change for the downtown landscape and economy, I would argue we need to continue this discussion.
Although I don’t live in the city, I live in Rutland Town which helps fund the library to the tune of $96,000 a year. Growing up in the town in the 1960s, I was a frequent user of the library. Because of its central location, it was a short walk from piano lessons, afternoon matinees at movie theaters and, in those days, lots of shopping. It was a perfect place for me and my six siblings to go wait for my dad to pick us up and take us home.
I still enjoy going into the historical, stately, iconic building — I have many good memories of time spent there. I’m now trying to put nostalgia aside though and be practical about how best to serve the people and taxpayers of Rutland City and surrounding towns.
As a senior planner at the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, one of my jobs is to convince Vermont cities and towns that thriving downtowns make a real difference. Public libraries are essential cogs in making dynamic communities; having libraries in secluded locations such as the campus of the former College of St. Joseph could risk that. Downtown Rutland has its challenges, but it’s still pivotal to the region’s growth and prosperity. Moving the library may be prioritizing short-term needs of the library at the expense of the long-term sustainability and growth of the downtown.
A library in downtown Rutland will bring more dollars to the city than a library at CSJ. It’s well-documented that library users spend money at other places downtown before and after they visit the library — at coffee shops, restaurants and stores. Data also show libraries increase surrounding property values, increase tax revenues of surrounding businesses and create community. If the library is moved, the long-term fiscal implications (tax revenue) to the city of Rutland could be a net loss because those revenues are not likely to be made up at the CSJ location.
Moving the library to a primarily drive-only location has significant equity issues, as those who need the library the most will have a harder time accessing the services.
Without doubt, there are some real benefits to the former CSJ location. Parking is plentiful. There’s room inside for the library to spread out and cater to children, teens, adults and community groups. And there’s some intriguing possible links to the Tuttle Theater next door. It could turn into a new community center of recreation, culture and learning. It appears to be a deal too good to pass up.
But will it remain an outpost or is the political will there to connect it to the rest of the city? Will The Bus make more than the four stops a day it’s planning for the new rec center? Will the city commit to building sidewalks to the area so it is more walkable? Will use of the Creek Path be encouraged?
There clearly is much affection for the current library building. Will the city ensure it is occupied, taken care of, and available for the public to continue visiting? There are some intriguing ideas being mentioned for future uses of the building, but will there be a concerted effort to find a new best use of the building?
So before we make this leap, how about ensuring the math adds up for the city and the region with a professional cost-benefit analysis? And if a move is determined to make sense, how about asking a commission of civic leaders, members of the public and businesspeople to come up with the most suitable and productive uses for the current library building?
The next Rutland Free Library board of trustees meeting is set for at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 20. Let’s keep the dialogue going.
Barbara Noyes Pulling lives in Rutland Town.