Time may be ripe for a new chapter in the story of the Buncombe County Public Libraries. If Buncombe’s Board of Commissioners follows the recommendations outlined in a May 18 presentation by Maureen Arndt, principal of 720 Design, the next 15 years would see a new Pack Memorial Library, the consolidation of several smaller branches and more resources distributed to outlying areas of the county.
Rather than the current “hub and spoke” model, in which there are many small branches but most services are based at the downtown Pack Library, the reimagined system would shift to a more distributed regional network. By maintaining fewer, larger facilities, Arndt suggested, the county could save on operating costs while offering more comprehensive service at each branch.
The Skyland/South Buncombe Library, for example, would be expanded from 4,296 to 25,000 square feet to include a bigger children’s area, study rooms and tutoring spaces. Meanwhile, the Oakley/South Asheville Library — the system’s smallest branch and located within a 10-minute drive of the newly renovated East Asheville Library — would be closed.
But the downtown library would also get a reboot, expanding from 51,776 to at least 65,000 square feet in a new location. Rachel Nilson, an architect working on Buncombe’s comprehensive facilities plan, flagged county-owned land on Coxe Avenue as an option for the new building, which could be paired with a 360-space parking garage and up to 120 units of affordable housing.
Some regions of the county with lower population density, Arndt added, could get access to library materials through self-service vending machines or locker systems. Candidate locations include the Stocksville community north of Weaverville and South Hominy.
Projected capital investment costs for implementing the library plan total at least $81 million over the next 15 years, including nearly $18 million for a new 25,000-square-foot facility in Enka/Candler and over $16 million for a new building of the same size in West Asheville. That expense doesn’t include the proposed Pack relocation, but Arndt presented a recent library and parking garage project of a similar size in Round Rock, Texas, with an estimated cost of $30 million.
Several commissioners noted that the proposal had already drawn community criticism, particularly from Black Mountain residents worried that their downtown library would be closed in favor of a larger building in a less walkable location. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, whose District 2 includes Black Mountain, advised Arndt to take those concerns into consideration as planning continued.
“It reminds me of conversations about potentially closing schools or churches. Libraries play this other role in our community that’s not about nostalgia: It’s about a rootedness,” Beach-Ferrara said. “I’d be interested what it would look like to play out some scenarios where there were some remodellings. … It’s something that’s really important in our community that we find ways to recognize and preserve those places that hold that meaning for people.”
In other news
Buncombe County’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues to make promising progress, said Public Health Director Stacie Saunders in a May 18 briefing to the commissioners. “You can see us there out in the west, bold and darker and bright,” she said, pointing to Buncombe on a map of North Carolina counties shaded according to vaccination status.
More than 75% of Buncombe residents aged 65 or older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of May 18, Saunders said. The same was true for roughly 49% of the county’s overall population, higher than the statewide vaccination rate of about 41%.
The county will now focus on vaccinating residents aged 12-17, of whom less than 18% had received at least one dose. Saunders noted that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was only approved for use in children aged 12-15 on May 12. Shots are currently available for free without an appointment at A-B Tech from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays-Fridays.
Commissioner Amanda Edwards shared that she’d recently taken her own teenage son to be vaccinated at A-B Tech. “I’ve never seen a kid so excited to get a needle stuck in his arm,” she quipped.