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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The new downtown library pays rich dividend for the community’s investment

Patrols of the Central Library make use of the Social Stair area on the second floor Monday. The space can also be used for poetry reading and educational events. After two years of remolding work, the downtown library is now open.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Patrols of the Central Library make use of the Social Stair area on the second floor Monday. The space can also be used for poetry reading and educational events. After two years of remolding work, the downtown library is now open. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

We invested in it.

And now the dividends are being paid.

Among the most impressive elements of the remodeled downtown library – and there are very many, which I encourage you to check out for yourself – is the fact that it arose from the kind of collective effort that is sometimes disparaged in political discussions.

We raised taxes on ourselves. We fueled major new “government spending.” And the result is projects of lasting community value all across the city, from The Hive on East Sprague Avenue to renovated libraries in Shadle Park and Liberty Park, with more to come.

Just as we did with parks and streets levies a few years earlier, we found common purpose, identified shared goals and creative solutions, and ponied up to achieve them.

At a time when unified civic effort seems like a quaint, bygone relic, it’s good to have that reminder. Also, at a time when the drumbeat of gloom about downtown Spokane is relentless, it’s good to see the wonderful new Central Library standing at the center of many things that are going well in the heart of town.

Our city center is not a doomed wasteland. Public investments in community space, from the renovated Riverfront Park to the plazas and overlooks bookending City Hall to the new library itself, are coexisting with a business district that would look – to someone who arrived in a time machine from 10 years ago – as vibrant as can be.

It is not that we don’t have problems. It’s that our discussion of those problems often omits other realities.

A great way to realize that is head to the Central Library, go up to the second or third floor, and cast your gaze out onto one of the best views of our city that you can find.

After more than two years, the Central Library reopened on Monday. If you were expecting a remodeling that nibbled around the edges of the existing library, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. From the first floor – with its inviting communal spaces, added computer stations and book store – to the top floor – with its event stage, recording studio and kitchen – the remodeled library represents a new vision for what the institution is.

The book stacks are less prominent – though it’s long been true that libraries are more than collections of books, as important as books remain. But the collection isn’t smaller than it was before; it’s just that there is an expanded range of other amenities and attractions, including a play area for kids, a business lab with access to a high-powered Bloomberg computer terminal, a coffee bar staffed by women in Transitions workforce programs, ample space for groups to meet, and on and on.

This work was funded by the $77 million bond that voters approved in 2018 (in conjunction with a schools bond that, due to changes in state funding, left some property owners with a drop in taxes overall). Work remains at the South Hill and Indian Trail libraries, but we’re already seeing the fruits of that bond measure all over town.

One less-visible – but important – component of planning for these bond projects was the transfer of ownership of the land the Central Library sits on from the city to Spokane Public Libraries, part of a property exchange involving the former Hillyard library.

Preserving public ownership of that spectacular site – as opposed to seeing it become high-dollar condos or an H&M at some point under the future administration of some entrepreneurial mayor – is a civic triumph.

That’s a place for everyone.

The new library is a sign of what the community can do when we come together around common goals and invest in achieving them – and it came during a time when it seemed as if our civic ability to do big, creative things was strong.

The library vote, after all, came just a few years after voters approved measures to continue fixing the streets and renovate Riverfront Park. Those 2014 measures were an easier sell, perhaps, given that they didn’t raise anyone’s taxes, thanks to the creative problem-solving that was – for a few years in the Condon administration – a feature of local government.

Obviously, these goals – good streets, schools, parks and libraries – are less divisive than others. Our ability to address those needs isn’t directly comparable to addressing more controversial challenges with deep, fundamental disagreements baked in.

Yet, at a moment when local politics can seem broken as a problem-solving enterprise, the successes of the library bond – and the street and parks levies before it – stand as a reminder that it’s possible for us to rally across political divides and make progress.

We made a collective investment four years ago.

With the Central Library – and the constellation of other library projects – we’re reaping the returns.

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