What does the future hold for the Swannanoa Library?

Imagination Library founder Dolly Parton
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL: A cardboard cutout of Imagination Library founder Dolly Parton holds court in the Swannanoa Library's cozy seating area. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

There’s a new sign on the front door of the Swannanoa Library amid the flyers for Tiny Tots yoga on Wednesdays and the Anime Club on Saturday afternoons.

“It’s official,” the sign reads. “The library is staying.”

For the past month, members of the Swannanoa community believed their library branch would close at the end of June, as per a Feb. 13 Buncombe County press release. The impending closure galvanized the small township. Residents placed bright red “Speak up for Swannanoa Library” signs on their lawns, and, according to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, sent a fusillade of correspondence to the county.

On March 7, the commissioners voted to temporarily suspend the closure. “I’m sure lots of folks who we’ve heard from and talked to who love the current library are also aware of its limitations and challenges,” Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman said at the meeting. “What we’re looking for is a good discussion about what can best serve this part of Buncombe County for the long term.”

Lifelong Swannanoa resident Rose Willis says she’s grateful that the commissioners took action. “I felt like they didn’t think … as many people would stand up for the library as … ended up doing so,” Willis says from a playground bench at Grovemont Park, where she sits watching her granddaughter play. “Even though it’s a small town, it still needs [a library].”

After she learned of the vote, Yve Mitchell, a local poet, says she called her husband “overjoyed” and in tears. “I definitely was shocked by the decision to keep it open,” Mitchell notes. “We’d already started grieving, just because I didn’t know how much power the community would have. We were hopeful, but we wanted to be realistic.”

Autumn Mitchell (no relation to Yve Mitchell), a senior at Charles D. Owen High School, says the Swannanoa Library is important for Black Mountain and Swannanoa youths. “There’s not really much that teenagers or even kids can do in the area — not very many different parks or attractions you can go to,” she points out, citing the 2016 closure of Tarwheels Skateway, a longtime roller rink in Black Mountain. “But then, there’s always a library.”

People who spoke with Xpress were relieved that the Swannanoa Library has been saved for now. But many questions remain about its future as well as who will be involved in the decision-making process moving forward.

An unwelcome surprise

Resident George Scott currently serves as the treasurer of the Swannanoa Community Council, which owns and leases the library building to the county. Scott says the Feb. 13 closure announcement surprised the entire community and the SCC as well as the Library Advisory Board.

TAKEN ABACK: According to Swannanoa Community Council Treasurer George Scott, the community had no idea Buncombe County was considering ending library services in Swannanoa. “They dropped it as a surprise on the community,” Scott says. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Sadie Simpson, secretary of the SCC, echoes this sentiment, noting the shock she felt on discovering the decision via Facebook. “As a resident of the neighborhood and a patron of the library, I was very, very surprised to see that announcement all over the internet.”

Part of the confusion, notes Scott, is that prior communication with the county concerning the library’s future had been open and collaborative. Beginning in summer 2022, Scott says, members of SCC and the county met multiple times and discussed recommended facility improvements as well as a conveyance of the parcels SCC owns — meaning, the SCC would convey the parcels to the county if certain stipulations, such as continuing to provide library services, were met.

Over the previous two years, Scott continues, SCC members held at least three meetings with several county employees, including Assistant County Manager DK Wesley and former Buncombe County Libraries Director Jim Blanton, and engaged in numerous phone calls.

Within these discussions, the county never broached the possibility of closing the Swannanoa branch, Scott asserts. However, in a March 15 email, Buncombe County spokesperson Lillian Govus writes, “During a meeting with SCC and county staff, the question was posed that if the County were to no longer operate a library, would SCC continue to utilize the space, and the SCC indicated the affirmative.”

Community members believed they might receive additional library services. In a Feb. 20 letter to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Carol Groben, the vice chair of the Friends of the Swannanoa Library, wrote that the community was “operating under the justifiable belief that the county had made a public commitment to finally address the inadequacy of library services in Swannanoa, and was moving forward with that plan.”

Groben continued, “Instead, we learned, out of the blue and with no prior warning whatsoever, that the county has now decided to address the problem of inadequate library services in Swannanoa by removing those services from our community altogether.”

Buncombe County spokesperson Lillian Govus confirms that the county did not consult the Library Advisory Board before the Feb. 13 announcement. “It was an operational decision [made by] the county manager’s office,” she says.

Real estate and repairs

The SCC owns the parcel that houses the library as well as two adjacent parcels that include an unpaved parking lot and Grovemont Park.

On Oct. 13, 2022, Buncombe County Attorney Brandon Freeman emailed Jeri Legeay, the attorney representing the SCC, with a conditional offer stating the county’s “intention to build a new library” on the current parcel and potentially extend it into the adjacent parking area. The email also said the county would maintain the park. 

But the SCC was unwilling to concede the park; instead, it offered the county a long-term lease. “That space is the center for the community. It has historic meaning and high historic value,” Scott says.

The SCC’s counteroffer also stipulated the county would “complete construction of a new or renovated library … with a Certificate of Occupancy issued within three years after the conveyance,” according to a Jan. 5, 2023, email from Legeay to the county.

According to a March 17, 2023, email, Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue declined SCC’s proposal, noting the county had discussed the counteroffer with the Board of Commissioners. Frue suggested the county and SCC “begin discussions and negotiations as soon as possible on future uses and lease terms. It might also be helpful to engage in further discussion regarding the property, beyond the scope of just the recommended lease discussion.”

Frue’s email also stated the county was “committed to exploring options for enhancing services and providing greater access to library resources for Buncombe County residents.”

In June 2023, representatives from SCC met with Buncombe County. “They didn’t say why they were declining [the offer in their March email], and so [we wanted to know], ‘OK, what’s the issue?’” Scott says. He believed a direct conversation with county employees might be more fruitful than communicating through lawyers. At that point, the county had renewed its lease on the Swannanoa Library building through June 2024.

As recently as this fall, Scott has had regular check-in phone calls with current Buncombe County Libraries Director Jason Hyatt. Based on these talks — and despite the county’s declining of SCC’s counteroffer — Scott says he was under the impression that the county was still considering it.

The county maintains that structural needs totaling $635,000 led to the lease’s nonrenewal. “There are some things that need to happen to meet [building] code and there are other things that need to happen in order to be able to have a responsible level of efficiency in the building,” Govus explained in a Feb. 4 interview with Xpress.

According to Govus, the building’s HVAC air distribution ductwork needs to be replaced, as do the roof, windows and oil furnace. She says the building also lacks sufficient insulation, and the incandescent lighting needs to be upgraded to meet updated federal Department of Energy regulations.

The SCC disputes the county’s $635,000 estimate for the building’s repairs. “Some of the items included in the county estimate have been addressed and taken care of by the SCC, so we feel that the county’s cost estimates are overstated,” reads the SCC website.

Scott also provided invoices showing SCC paid to replace an electric water heater in 2023 and shared invoices for other work, such as circuitry for the HVAC. (SCC finances the building repairs it does through its outdoor summer concert series, Groovin’ on Grovemont.) Furthermore, he says, the SCC replaced the roof in 2015: “It’s in great shape. It’s probably going to be good for another 20 years.”

Govus did not provide comments on Scott’s claims about the meetings. Board of Commissioners Chair Newman did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and Hyatt declined to speak with Xpress for this article.

“We directed [Buncombe County staff] to keep the current location open, and so that is definitely a win for the community and for the greater Swannanoa area,” says Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells. “It is a growing area of our county, and there are a lot of services that are tied around our libraries that benefit people in our community. And so I’m excited that we’re going to be looking at how we can improve those services for that area.”

The fate of other libraries

This is not the first time Swannanoa residents have been concerned for the fate of their library. However, previous discussions about potential changes to library services were linked to a past proposal, which Buncombe County is no longer pursuing.

In May 2021, the Board of Commissioners reviewed the Library Master Plan. Among its many recommendations, the plan called for consolidating the Black Mountain and Swannanoa libraries and closing the Oakley/South Asheville Library.

In June 2021, following objections from community members, the county announced that staff was “pressing pause” on the Library Master Plan. And in November 2021, the Board of Commissioners voted to maintain the current library system by keeping all existing libraries in their current locations and “to explore enhancements to the library system,” according to a county press release.

SOCIAL MEDIA SHOCK: Sadie Simpson, secretary of the Swannanoa Community Council, learned of Buncombe County’s initial decision to close the library on Facebook. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Many residents who spoke with Xpress said they believed the commissioners’ 2021 vote meant closing the Swannanoa Library was no longer an option.

However, Govus says the November 2021 vote did not factor into the county’s recent decisions on the Swannanoa Library’s future. Buncombe County does not need to obtain approval from the Board of Commissioners to end a lease on a building that provides a public service, Govus states.

Based on their recent experiences, community members now worry other library facilities could be in jeopardy.

“There are not any discussions [about changing] library service other than to expand hours to increase access at other locations,” Govus tells Xpress.

She also notes Buncombe County leases the Black Mountain Library and the Oakley Library buildings. “It’s hard to make a commitment on properties the county doesn’t own,” she says.

When asked if the county would consider purchasing either of those buildings, Govus replied, “I have not been part of any of that conversation, so I can’t speak anything to that.”

What’s next?

Swannanoa residents are cautiously optimistic despite the library’s unclear future. Scott, the treasurer for the SCC, is pleased with the March 7 vote to keep the library open. “The community [is] grateful the commissioners demonstrated leadership in making this decision to allow the library services to continue for the people of Swannanoa,” he says. “We look forward to a fully transparent process with ample community input as a robust and improved library services model is developed.”

A new building at the current site and a new site for the library are both possibilities, Govus told Xpress in a March 12 interview. Any potential real estate acquisition would be discussed by the Board of Commissioners in a closed session, she adds. Commissioners would then direct the staff about whether to pursue a proposed location.

What’s off the table — for now at least — is purchasing the Swannanoa Library building. Says Govus, “That is not anything that we’re discussing.”

Meanwhile, the SCC is working to assure residents of continuity in ownership. “The important thing to know right now is that there are no plans to sell the building or use it for any purpose other than to benefit the Swannanoa community,” the group states on its website.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

2 thoughts on “What does the future hold for the Swannanoa Library?

  1. Ed Sheary

    Excellent reporting. Thank you Ms. Wakeman and the MountainXpress for trying to explain a situation that I find inexplicable.

    Ed Sheary, Director
    Buncombe County Public Libraries

  2. Allen Dye

    “What’s off the table — for now at least — is purchasing the Swannanoa Library building. Says Govus, “That is not anything that we’re discussing.””

    Ms Govus seems to be missing a key point here. The library building was NEVER available for purchase. The SCC offered to GIVE it to the county for the purpose of a library and at no time was money asked for. The goal of the SCC is now and has always been the best possible library for Swannanoa.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.