Feb. 11, 2004 – New hope for the long-proposed mid-island public library on St. Thomas appeared on the horizon at Tuesday's Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee hearing.
In a letter to Sen. Louis Hill, the committee chair, Frank Schulterbrandt, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority, said that by the end of the month the EDA will make a final decision on a renewed tax-benefits package for Tutu Park Ltd. which would require the company to build the Tutu Community Library.
Schulterbrandt said the EDA governing board has completed "extensive negotiations and renegotiations with the principals of Tutu Park Inc." that have been under way for the last year "to make construction of the Tutu Community Library a reality." And he said he has gone over the construction plans with Claudette Lewis, assistant commissioner of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, under which the territory's libraries fall, and she is satisfied with them.
Advocates of the mid-island library spoke with concerted commitment and passion on Tuesday in the Senate chambers, sometimes eloquently, other times to present sad facts. Members of the Friends of the St. Thomas Public Libraries and government officials pleaded with the senators to make the new library a repository for the territory's cultural heritage that will be available to its young people. That is, if they can read.
Jason Budsan, advocacy chair for the Friends group, reminded the senators of grim statistics. "Every year, without greater access to libraries, our children will fall further behind in their test scores," he said. "And 74 percent of our children read below their grade level, according to the Community Foundation of the V.I. With over 40 percent of our children in poverty, there is a direct link between education and our children's future."
Friends board member Wanda Mills spoke of the benefits she has received from the opportunity to do research at national and international university library systems. She made a point of citing libraries in St. Kitts and Puerto Rico, which she said have systems that are limited but where "librarians take measures to protectively guard their precious resources."
Mills added: "Throughout the Caribbean, I have observed the role of public libraries as reservoirs of information, however limited in resources." Mills also told the lawmakers that "as much as some would like to believe, one book does not say it all. Given the historical, social and political significance of our islands and the cultural diversity … it is necessary to expand our library collection, not only for our children, but for the intellectual advancement of adults and researchers."
Ellen G. MacLean, one of the founders of the Friends group, said the Tutu area has a large elementary school population, including pupils at Joseph Gomez and E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary Schools and Seventh-Day Adventist School. These youngsters who go "unserved and have no easy access to the Enid Baa Library," she said.
Carol Lotz, Friends outgoing president, suggested the senators acquaint themselves with libraries in general and compare the territory's budget for library services with those of similarly sized communities. She also suggested the senators take a walk down Main Street and see for themselves the condition of Baa Library. "I doubt many of you guys have been there in a long time," she said, prompting Hill to respond that he frequently takes such a walk and is familiar with the library.
"There are no young adult programs, nor a person to advise on young adult reading," Lotz said. "Our bright young adults are our future; their library should be their second home. Knowledge is power." She added: "The government by not providing adequate information access is disempowering our citizens."
Patricia Harkins-Pierre, incoming president of the group, said since she began teaching at the University of the Virgin Islands in 1989, she has seen the library group "transformed and even reborn several times."
"I was present when an architect presented the first exciting model of the Tutu Community Library more than 10 years ago," she said. "It is amazing and dismaying that this dream has yet to become a reality — and recently to find that if it does, it may be in diminished form."
Harkins-Pierre said she teaches a children's class on Saturday mornings at Baa Library. "In spite of the 20 or so children and adults we stuff in one room downstairs, I can't help but be aware of the children we are not reaching," she said. Nevertheless, she added, "I still cling to hope — that eager expectation of good the Bible teaches me."
Hill listened intently to all of the presenters. "I admire your passion," he told them. "If it were permissible, I would applaud."
The political reality
In a July 2000 Senate committee meeting, Sen. Roosevelt David proposed legislation to create a public library in the Tutu area. His colleagues at the time questioned the need to mandate a library when plans for one had been in the works for years. Senators also wondered where the funds to build it would be found. David said he had a long list of federal funding sources into which the territory could tap.
DPNR's Lewis, a longtime advocate of the mid-island library, testified at that meeting that she had spoken to William Mahaffey, one of the Tutu Park Mall developers, about the construction of a library there, and that he had reiterated his commitment to build the facility.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg then reminded his colleagues that the mall received Industrial Development Commission tax benefits on the condition that a library be built on the premises, along with a museum to house the historical artifacts unearthed at the site. "We desperately need this library and a facility that will accommodate historical archives," he said.
In 1989, when Tutu Park Ltd. initially applied for tax benefits under the former Industrial Development Commission, the developers pledged to make 20,000 square feet of mall space available, at no cost, for five suggested community uses, one of which was a combined public library and UVI library annex.
In his letter to Hill made public at Tuesday's hearing, Schulterbrandt said while the negotiations with Tutu Park Mall officials for construction of the library have been completed, he cannot reveal the details now because under the V.I. Code, "I cannot disclose conditions of the agreement until the EDA board makes its final decision."
Committee members attending the meeting were Sens. David, Donastorg, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, and Ronald Russell. Sens. Carlton Dowe and Almando "Rocky" Liburd were absent. Sen. Luther Renee, who is not a member of the committee, also attended.
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