Library fate splits town.
Public meeting on future of library shows how deeply divided NOTL is between old town and rural residents.
More than three hours of sometimes raucous debate did little to quell a Niagara-on-the-Lake dispute which has divided old town residents and their rural neighbours.
Despite a steady stream of speakers and a packed house which spilled into aisles and doorways, consensus over the future location of the community's library was not reached during a marathon public meeting Tuesday.
What did become blatantly clear, though, is how deeply entrenched opposition remains to the possible removal of the library from its current location at the historic former courthouse on Queen Street. Equally clear is how frustrated library employees and library users are with the limitations of the current location.
"I believe those outside the old town have as many rights as those in the old town," said Sue Jansen, a sixth generation resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, who supported moving the library to a proposed site on Highway 55. "The library is for the whole of Niagara-on-the-Lake, not just the old town.
"I was raised to believe we are one town. The decision should be made for what is best for the majority."
But those vocal residents living in the old town insist the library must remain downtown to help preserve the area as a place to live, and not just as a place for tourists. "We believe all essential services should be left as they are," said Laura Dodson. "If repairs are needed, then let them be done. We want the building -- our community centre -- to stay where it is."
Niagara-on-the-Lake aldermen first contemplated the possible relocation of the library in January. Two possible locations have since received the most discussion: a municipal piece of land on Highway 55 within the urban boundary and the Niagara District Secondary School.
Debate has become heated during several attempts to resolve the decision, most recently at a meeting earlier this month where council voted to table their decision pending Tuesday's public meeting at the Platoff Street community centre. Council is expected to deal with the issue again next Monday.
One suggestion which received several mentions Tuesday is the possibility of keeping a small, satellite library in the courthouse and opening a larger facility in a new building.
Another oft-cited recommendation was the need for council to postpone its decision on the library's location pending an in-depth study looking into the impact on the old town, and the cost associated with the construction of a new library.
"Where are the detailed studies," asked Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival and a proponent of maintaining the library on Queen Street. "Please reconsider this rash adventure in public spending."
Although several of the more than 35 speakers questioned the need of spending potentially more than $1 million for a new library, several library employees and board members described the current facility as woefully inadequate and outdated.
Employees spoke of leaking toilets which led to water-stained books, a lack of space for children's reading programs and the need to carry books up and down flights of stairs without the aid of trollies.
David Eke, vice-chairman of the library board, told the more than 350 residents at the meeting that renovating the current site is an option which has already been considered and discarded.
Expanding into the second floor would give the library minimal additional space, while expansion to the rear of the courthouse would be feasible, but cost prohibitive.
Eke also said there's no reason the courthouse need to lose its community focus, as it could still be used to house new public uses.
"The needs of the library should not be sacrificed for the status quo," said Eke.
Clear direction on where council will now head wasn't apparent after Tuesday's session, which at times became heated.
Several times throughout the night, Alderman Jamie Slingerland, who chaired the meeting, cut off speakers who he deemed to be making disparaging comments about staff or other aldermen. At one point, he unplugged the sound system, preventing one speaker from finishing his address and ordered him to sit down.
"To me, the tone of tonight wasn't too surprising," said Lord Mayor Art Viola. "It's an emotional issue. Hopefully this will be sorted out in due process."
Viola would not offer his opinion on what should be done with the library, saying he would let council decide the matter.