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Athens targets Kroger building for library
Limestone officials meet in work session to work up plan to purchase facility, raise funds for renovation

By Ronnie Thomas 340-2438

ATHENS — Cliff Byrd, chairman of the Athens-Limestone Public Library board of trustees, said a work session Friday was to get four entities on the same page in acquiring a library building.

Two hours later, it appeared to be mission accomplished. Members of the trustees, the library board foundation, Athens City Council and Limestone County Commission believe they have a plan that will secure the building and pave the way for the foundation to raise funds for renovation.

The target is the abandoned 40,000-square-foot building on Jefferson Street that once housed Kroger. The price is $700,000.

The council and commission basically put the rubber stamp on a resolution they had considered earlier. They will use an anonymous donation of $40,000 to pay the first year's interest on the loan and then split the interest over the next three years.

Meanwhile, the foundation and trustees will develop plans to raise about $5 million for renovation.

Trustee Harvey Craig said they will invite Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, Rep. Henry White, D-Athens, and Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, to discuss how the project might be handled.

"We have no assets other than gifts and no source of income," said Frank McCollum, foundation president. "We don't know how much money we can raise, but if we put together a plan, we will be eligible for grant money. I think we can raise the money in a reasonable amount of time."

Mayor Dan Williams emphasized the importance of a fund-raising plan. He recalled that a few years ago, the city proposed a tax for the library "that was defeated terribly because we didn't have a plan."

Byrd said individuals could donate to the foundation and take it off their income taxes because the foundation has a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.

The current library, built in 1968 at 405 E. Smith St., consists of only 10,000 square feet.

"We're doing things in there now that need 26,000 square feet," said Susan Todd, library director. She said the latest estimate reveals that during the next 20 years the library will need 38,000 square feet.

Not all pleased

Still, Councilman John Crutcher said he would like to see $2 million spent on doubling the size of the current library.

"I'm not for the one at Kroger's," he said. "It's too close to the railroad track."

He said he spent three days at the library this week, three hours on each visit, and didn't notice anyone waiting at the counter.

"It has taken care of the city for 40 years and could do it longer," he said.

But Craig said the library is isolated and not easy to find.

Councilman Ronnie Marks, who also is a member of the foundation board, said he wants to make sure officials consider all options. He wondered if instead they should be looking at a technology center as an extension for after school.

Todd said a technology center would accomplish one of the purposes of a public library, and she'd like to have one.

"We can get the building renovated and move in or minimize services and stay where we are," she said.

Someone else suggested a combination city and college library, involving Athens State University. Todd said she spoke with Robert Burkhardt, director of the university library, and they agreed that such an endeavor would compromise both facilities.

"The general public would lose," she said. "They wouldn't feel comfortable going there, and 3-year-olds going to story time would interrupt the academic setting."

City Council President Harold Wales called for the work session and said he wanted to "let the board and foundation tell us their concerns. When we solicit people to serve on the board, we need to support that board. I'm here today to support the library and not to do anything to jeopardize the city."

He said a "modern public library" is necessary. He said with or without employees locating in Athens because of the military's Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the city and county will grow by 21/2 percent every year.

"We can sit here a week and find reasons not to do this," Wales said. "Let's go forward with what we've got."

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