Winthrop library plans on hold

adouglas@heraldonline.comSeptember 14, 2013 

— While many in Rock Hill’s business community and government celebrated a milestone this week for “Knowledge Park,” a library project that could help propel the city’s development plan forward is still on hold.

Until South Carolina lawmakers decide to borrow the money, Winthrop University likely will have to wait to build a desired new library and “technology hub” – a project some say would pair well with other development planned for Rock Hill’s former textile area.

Rock Hill City Council members on Monday approved a tentative agreement with Sora-Phelps, a partnership of two out-of-state companies that say they’re willing to put up the cash to build Knowledge Park.

The development will take hundreds of millions of dollars to finish. Plans call for refitting old textile structures and some new construction on sites such as the land where the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. plant – commonly called the Bleachery – once operated.

Earlier this summer, new Winthrop President Jayne Marie Comstock presented the school’s most recent request for the state to borrow $50 million to pay for a new library in the Knowledge Park area.

The request has been ongoing for at least a decade, but lawmakers haven’t borrowed money for college capital projects in that time period, except for new construction on the state’s top three research institution campuses.

Dacus Library, Winthrop’s existing library for students and faculty, is nearly 45 years old. It is named for the school’s first librarian, Ida Jane Dacus.

It is Winthrop’s second library. The first was a Carnegie library housed in what is now Rutledge Hall, home to an art gallery, academic office and classroom building.

Last summer, Winthrop spent about $1 million to renovate Dacus. Before that, the school replaced the library’s roof.

But the building’s age and some issues with mold, mildew and fluctuating temperatures aren’t Winthrop’s only challenges with Dacus.

“Trying to retrofit this mid-20th-century building for 21st century technological needs of students is most difficult in some cases, impossible in others,” said Mark Herring, Winthrop’s dean of library services.

Winthrop envisions a “bank of computers,” possibly iPads, laptops and tablets – not just books – in its new library facility, he said.

Large collaborative spaces and “areas for private study and reflection, still the benchmark of the successful student, would dot its periphery,” Herring said.

The last year’s overhaul of Dacus’ main floor, he said, was a “window looking into the future” of how Winthrop’s prospective new library could look.

The change has been received well by the campus, Herring said, noting that Dacus’ move to be open 24 hours a day, five days a week has been popular.

While upgraded technology would be the focus of a new campus library, he said, the Internet and other innovations are no substitute for traditional library services.

The “golden age” of libraries is just beginning, Herring said, because “libraries have always been about access to information in whatever format that information exists.”

New technologies have given birth to more ways to access information and learning, he said, but librarians are still necessary guides to navigating the “raw data” often found on new media.

Some officials have mulled the idea of Winthrop’s library serving as just such a “guide” to more people than those in the university community.

Just as Winthrop says it needs a new facility, York County officials have said the county needs a new and bigger main public library.

The county’s main branch on Black Street in downtown Rock Hill is in a building that one day could be used by the Rock Hill Police Department and Municipal Court, which are expected to outgrow the recent expansion of the law center across the street from the library.

Included in the Knowledge Park information packet that was sent to developers several months ago, a joint York County-Winthrop library could meet both the county and the university goals.

If business leaders and Sora-Phelps move forward with plans for a street car connecting Winthrop to downtown Rock Hill, the location of a new library could be closer to Main Street than the campus.

The idea pitched to hopeful Knowledge Park developers called for an estimated 220,000-square-foot library.

In Comstock’s budget request to state officials, Winthrop proposes that a new facility could serve up to 12,000 students and faculty.

The library would be an addition to Winthrop’s lineup of new campus facilities, ushered in by former President Anthony DiGiorgio with an aggressive building campaign he led for 24 years.

DiGiorgio’s administration purposefully used Winthrop’s resources to form a new “heart” of campus, which is also a bookend on Knowledge Park maps.

Winthrop and its private foundation have spent nearly $100 million on buildings, infrastructure and other improvements in what officials consider the Knowledge Park area.

By the time Sora-Phelps breaks ground on its first project, Rock Hill estimates the city will have invested close to $60 million in the former textile area to prepare sites for development.

Winthrop is already a “synergy” in the area of the planned growth, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

As a Winthrop alumnus, Simrill spent plenty of hours in Dacus Library, he said.

He understands the university’s desire and need for a new library building, but the political atmosphere in Columbia has not been favorable to borrowing money for college construction projects.

Simrill and state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, have championed budget legislation that has helped Winthrop and York Technical College get by with building maintenance and campus improvements in the time that lawmakers have shied away from borrowing money.

The appetite has been weak for borrowing more money under South Carolina’s past two governors – Republicans Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley – and Simrill and Hayes say that likely won’t change any time soon.

But while interest rates are low, the economy is rebounding and the state’s debt load is healthy, Hayes said, it might be time for lawmakers to again debate the need to borrow money for projects such as Winthrop’s library.

Such a “bond bill,” he said, would likely need to include about $700 million to pay for dozens of capital improvements on campuses around the state.

Even if lawmakers agree to “take the political heat” that comes with borrowing money, Hayes said, the General Assembly might not have the votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

Still, if the state does decide to borrow again, he said, Winthrop’s library request is “right at the top of the list.”

Simrill agreed, saying he’s happily “carrying the papers” to Columbia to advocate for Winthrop’s getting its fair share of state tax dollars for higher education.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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