Last Saturday, under a blazing hot sun and an impossibly blue sky, families, officials and book lovers of all ages gathered on courthouse hill in Sylva to witness the grand opening the new Jackson County Public Library Complex. After some 12 years of planning, fundraising and hard work, the new library complex has opened in the picturesque but formerly vacant Jackson County Courthouse.
There were many times over those years of hard work that Howard Allman, chair of the Public Library Board, wondered if it would ever come to pass. Allman, who kicked off the grand opening ceremony and introduced the other guest speakers for the day, eloquently described his emotions at seeing the project come to fruition.
“Folks, I can’t tell you how proud I am at this moment, when I look out on our downtown Main Street area, and look out to the Plott Balsam Range wrapping her big arms around us like a bear hug from a dear friend, and I turn to see this jeweled structure, this temple of learning and history: I get a bit choked up,” Allman said.
The renovation of the courthouse to house the new library required a significant investment – over $8.6 million – of local, state and federal and private funds. Of that amount, over $1.8 million was raised by community volunteers.
Though the effort to convert the historic 1914 building started than a decade ago, it wasn't until October, 2007, that the Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted to incorporate a new expanded library into the courthouse and the surrounding grounds. The historic building, renovated inside and out, now boasts a state of the art library and community center.
The library complex also houses a number of community facilities and resources. The Jackson County Genealogical Society and the Historical Association’s museum are now located on the ground floor of the complex. The former courtroom on the second floor has been transformed into a multi-purpose Community Room with seating for over 150. The Arts Council office and a catering area are also on the second floor.
Allman, who thanked the state and local leaders who had the foresight to allocate the monies for the project, acknowledged that without community support the project would have never have gotten off the ground. He noted several community fundraising drives that were key to completion of the project, including a book reading drive in which children read more than 4,000 books to raise more than $8,000.
Jackson County Libriarian, Dottie Brunette, agreed that the new library was greatly a product of the community “that pushed this project forward.” Remarking on the many individuals whose combined efforts were necessary, Brunette said, “What cannot be achieved in one lifetime, will happen when one lifetime is joined to another lifetime.”
The grand opening was attended by a wide range of agency officials and elected representatives, including State Senator Jim Davis and Representative Phil Haire, as well as a number of current and former Jackson County commissioners. Representatives for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, Gov. Bev Purdue and N.C. Secretary of Cultural Resources, Linda A. Carlisle also attended the ceremony.
North Carolina State Librarian, Mary L. Boone, praised the new library, which she said reaffirms the importance of education and books. But she said that today's libraries are about more than just books.
“Our libraries today provide so much more,” she said, noting that libraries have also become important resources for people who are unemployed, don’t have computers at home or don’t know how to use a computer to research jobs. “These are the kinds of things that our public libraries are doing today, not only helping people find job listings, apply for jobs, work on resumes, but also offering training classes in how to use computers, which in the end makes our community members more employable.”
Boone also noted that during periods of economic downturn, public library usage always increases. “This recession has been no exception. During our time of greatest budget cuts, all over our state, our libraries are also experiencing some of their times of greatest usage,” she said.
Chairman of the Fontana Regional Library Board, Dr. Ethan Staats, also addressed those gathered to celebrate the new library, noting that 60 percent of the citizens of Jackson County currently have library card and predicting that, because of the state of the art facility, that number was soon to rise. “I welcome the Jackson County Library to the 21st Century,” he said.
Boyce Dietz, field representative for U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, presented a flag from the Congressman which had flown over the Capital to County Librarian Burnette.
Invoking his famous sense of humor, Dietz praised the new facility, saying, “When I look at this library I can’t find the word that would describe it.” Dietz noted that for years the clock in the courthouse clock-tower was stuck on 4:15. “Now the clock’s running again ... and our county is again on the move,” he said, adding in a final irony, that for once, it is the library that saved the courthouse.
In a special recognition, Vance Davidson, dedicated the library complex terrace and second floor balcony to two individuals that had been key in fundraising for the project. Mary Otto Selzer and Dr. John T. Bunn, co-chairs of the capital campaign, were presented a bronze plaque that is to be installed in the library. “Without their vision, passion, support and leadership, our journey to today’s celebration would have been much more difficult and arduous,” said Davidson.
After the ceremony, the celebration continued with activities and performances that appealed to guests of all ages. For the kids, there was storytelling and music. On the large terrace, there were various musical and dance performances. There was also a reading of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” performed from the second story balcony. Performances by the many Jackson County musicians who shared their talents on the “Sounds of Jackson County” CD to raise funds for the library closed out the day's celebrations.
Activities and performances are also scheduled for this weekend. On Sunday, June 19, there will be Shaped Noted Singing on the courthouse portico from 1 – 3 p.m. A contra dance will be held in the Community Room from 3 – 7 p.m. At noon, on Monday through Friday music and storytelling will be performed on the Terrace. At 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, library guest will be treated to the Smoky Mountain High School Show Choir, the Triple Threat Dance Team, the movie, “The Fugitive,” the Community Chamber Orchestra and a performance of Gary Carden's “Raindrop Waltz.”