New chapter begins for proposed regional library in Smyrna

Ben Mace
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

A proposal for a new library in Smyrna would provide almost four times more space for about $25 more per year to the average homeowner’s property tax bill.

Advocates for the project, the Friends of the Duck Creek Regional Library, have secured a 99-year lease on town property on South Main Street that includes the parking lot at Foxwell Street and Dwight Avenue.

“We needed to get that lease signed,” said Joanne Masten, the president of the Friends group. “We have a ways to go, but now we have the location.”

Masten is also the Kent County Levy Court First District commissioner and former Smyrna mayor.

Friends of the Duck Creek Regional Library president Joanne Masten (left) and vice president Pat Musto stand at the site of the proposed library, on part of the parking lot owned by the Town of Smyrna off of South Main Street at Foxwell Street and Dwight Avenue.

She said plans are to construct an 18,000-square-foot, one-story library that extends into what is now part of the parking lot. The lot will still be a town parking lot, including library parking.

The current Smyrna Public Library has about 4,918 square feet including the first floor and basement of the building at 107 S. Main Street. That building is also home to the Smyrna Opera House. If a new library is built, the current Smyrna library space could be used by the Opera House, Masten said.

Mayor Robert C. Johnson voted in favor of leasing the town parking lot property for the new library.

“One reason is because everyone doesn’t have access to computers and the internet,” Johnson said. “This will be a place with capacity for more people to have access to that system.”

He believes a larger library downtown will help the surrounding businesses by bringing more traffic, which may attract other businesses downtown.

He also likes the plan for rooms where community groups can hold meetings.

Councilwoman Valerie Forbes and Councilman Bill Pressley voted against the lease of the town parking lot for a new library.

“I’m concerned about the location,” said Forbes. “I feel it’s not the ideal location, and I’m concerned about the new taxes that will be imposed on residents. I just believe somewhere that’s more accessible and more visible would be better.”

Pressley also objects to the location. When the new library was first proposed several years ago, he recommended a site on Carter Road.

“I have been supportive of the library since day one. I just don’t support them putting it where they want to put it, taking away from our downtown parking,” Pressley said.

The Friends group is working with Becker Morgan Group on revising the design of the library which was first planned as a 28,000-square-foot, two-story building. Another change will be designing outdoor areas for reading or meetings, after lessons learned from the pandemic.

“We’re hoping to break ground in 2023,” Masten said.

Friends Vice President Pat Musto said she favored the one-story plan for safety and costs.

“Even though the one-story building is smaller, we’re not losing a lot of square footage of actual usable space, because a lot of the extra space in the two-story plan was for the elevator and two stairways,” Musto said.

Musto said she’s “excited” about the progress on the plan.

“We started this project back in 2008, but unfortunately, it got stalled. I really want people to know it is going to happen,” she said.

Is a new library needed?

“Our current library is great, but it’s limited by its size,” said Masten. “We have a tremendous library director who does a phenomenal job with the space she has. Imagine what she could do with a larger library.”

The current Smyrna Public Library at 107 S. Main St. has 4,918 square feet including the first floor and basement. The second and third floors of the building are home to the Smyrna Opera House. The proposed Duck Creek Regional Library would be about 18,000 square feet on one floor.

Expanding the current library isn’t an option, she said, because the library borders streets on two sides, a building on another, and the Opera House lobby and box office.

The Delaware Council on Libraries recommended the new library in the Smyrna area to the Department of State, said Katie McDonough, administrative librarian with the Delaware Division of Libraries. The Council on Libraries includes two members elected annually by each county library advisory board and seven members appointed by the governor.

The proposal for the Duck Creek Regional Library includes $4.4 million in state funding for construction and furnishings.

Masten said although some people think that the need for libraries is decreasing in this digital age, the opposite is true.

“The need for library access is especially urgent for the disenfranchised, those without computers, the elderly and the financially challenged,” she said. “Without a library and its services, these people will truly be left behind.”

Computers and internet access are needed for student research, and, over the past year, virtual school classes, along with job searches, job applications and access to a wide variety of services.

“The issue with the current Smyrna Library is there’s only a small bank of computers, and you have to sign up for time slots,” Masten said. “Not all kids have computers and internet access at home, and it’s needed more than ever.”

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She also thinks the library will be one of the keys to downtown prosperity.

“For downtown to survive, we need foot traffic,” Masten said. “If people have a reason to come into town then the surrounding businesses should benefit.”

Cost and tax proposals

The estimated cost for the first proposal, the two-story library, was about $12 million. The cost of the smaller, one-story project should be less.

In addition to the $4.4 million the state has budgeted for the project, the Friends group has raised about $750,000, and hoping for more donations.

The Friends group is in talks with Kent County leaders about a new library tax district that would fund the annual operating costs of the library. A public hearing would be held on the plan, and the majority of county commissioners would have to approve it.

The extra cost for the average homeowner in the new library district which includes those inside and outside town limits would be about $25 more per year in property taxes, according to Kay Wheatley, consultant to the Friends group.

The group is also working with New Castle County for funding because a portion of the Smyrna School District extends into New Castle County, Masten said.