By Richard Sullins |

In a moment of bipartisanship, the Lee County Board of Commissioners rolled up their sleeves Monday to solve a problem in a fashion that – believe it or not – left everyone a winner.

Vines Architecture of Raleigh was selected last year as the designer of the new county library that will be located on Bragg Street near O.T. Sloan Park. The county had budgeted $13 million for its construction.

But with almost every sector of the economy being pushed to the limit by inflation, public construction projects seem to be among those that have felt the pain of rising prices and materials shortages most keenly. When the contract for the library was awarded to Vines last year, there was reason for optimism. The projected costs then were in alignment with the money the county had available, and the supply chain issues that had created shortages of materials were finally beginning to ease.

Victor Vines, president of Vines Architecture, met with the board just three months ago to gain input on several possible schematic designs to develop an overall theme for the new library’s look. Vines was more subdued as he stood before the commissioners Monday.

In that three months, Vines and his team have with the project’s contractors and a group of professional estimators. All agreed that in the current market, the building as it had been envisioned would now cost closer to $19 million.

Few, if any, of the commissioners could have predicted the library’s cost would increase by nearly 40 percent in just 90 days.

It was in that moment that the often split board put aside their differences to find a solution. For those lucky enough to be in the audience, it was a rare opportunity to watch as politics took a back seat and history was made.

A voice breaks through

Monday’s audience included Beth List, director of Library Services for Lee County, Cathy Griffith, chair of the Library Board and several members of the library’s board of trustees. Griffith spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting to express support for the original design.

A second person to speak on the library’s behalf was Virginia Strucinsky of Broadway. A soft-spoken retired schoolteacher in her 80s who was barely taller than the podium she spoke from, she spoke for barely a minute.

“A library is very, very important,” she said, “and we really cannot let the education of our whole population fall behind. We certainly need this new library, and we are so happy that the board of commissioners is in favor of this and leading the way for the rest of us.”

Strucinsky countered the notion that libraries are just for children.

“Working people need to keep up with the times,” she said. “There are so many new things coming on the market that cause our intelligence to keep increasing daily. And our senior citizens, who have enjoyed all the wonders of our libraries for decades, are now discovering that the new resources we can find there can take us anywhere, regardless of where we might be now in this life. This new library is a smart investment for Lee County, and we all thank you for it.”

A Sophie’s choice

The commissioners were faced with two choices. The first, and perhaps easiest, would be to scale back the size of the library and do as much as possible with the $13 million they had committed to the project.

Vines and his team had come prepared Monday with a selection of options that would still allow the library to be constructed, but with changes to the design that would require reductions in services.

One of those possibilities suggested eliminating the building’s three wings to reduce its overall footprint by 9,000 square feet. Another proposed reducing the number of parking spaces to the minimum of 56 the building code requires.

Vines offered an option to change the materials used in the structure’s exterior to less-expensive alternatives, such as replacing the planned wood flooring with carpeting. There was also consideration of reducing the plazas and outdoor areas by as much as 25 percent.

But as these were explored one-by-one, there seemed to be a growing consensus among the commissioners that reductions or alterations to the design would cause the kinds of reductions in service to the community that couldn’t be justified.

As Chairman Kirk Smith, a Republican, began polling his colleagues for their thoughts on how to proceed, Democrat Cameron Sharpe spoke first.

“This building will be a centerpiece for our community, and I feel about it the same way that I do about the sports complex. I don’t want to do either of them half-way. I’m 59 years old and this may be the last new library I’ll ever see, so I want it to be a good one,” he said.

Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives Sr. got to the second option for the board’s consideration with a question that was surely on the minds of the other commissioners.

“What would it cost us to stay on track with what we had already proposed?” he asked of County Manager Lisa Minter.

Based on the design that Vines’ group had developed, Minter estimated the commissioners would need to add an additional $6 million to construct the project as envisioned. Reives then asked the critical question – what would the tax impact be to the county for adding $6 million for the project?

“I asked Davenport, our financial advisors, to run the numbers with an assumption of a $5 million addition, and there was no financial impact,” Minter answered. “With a $6 million addition, I think that we could safely say again there would be no financial impact.”

Republican Commissioner Bill Carver, who is the board’s liaison to the county library, was also in favor of keeping the space as it had been designed looking elsewhere the $6 million needed to make it happen. Carver spoke of working with intellectually curious students and the need to keep them engaged, and that, he said, requires lots of space.

“The size was developed to fit the programs and when we bring students to the library, we need a space that really wows them. We want this one to be special,” he said, “and coming up with the extra money, in my opinion, would be the way to go.”

The board voted unanimously in favor of keeping the original library design in place without changes made to cut costs, and also in favor of adding another $6 million in county reserves to fully fund the project to its completion.