Liberty Hill Public Library stuck in limbo between renovation, expansion
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The public library is much too small, patrons and organizers agree. But the strategy moving forward has run into a stalemate.
Prohibitive costs, collapsed talks and a surprise downturn in the economy have waylaid every attempt to build new facilities. The other option is to renovate the existing space, but grant givers are reluctant to pour the $70,000-$100,000 needed if a bigger building would soon replace it.
Besides which, Library Director Angela Palmer is unsure for how many more years the lease for their current site at Lions Foundation Park will hold. Talks have continued intermittently between the Liberty Hill Development Foundation Board, which owns the private park, and the City of Liberty Hill, which is trying to acquire it. In any outcome, Palmer says, the library has no guarantee of its lease.
The result is a state of limbo. With an uncertain future and no easy way to renovate or expand, the 2002-built building must continue to accommodate the growing crowds of 2017. The only way forward, it seems, is to wait for revenue from the sales tax funding them to catch up pace.
The library’s trustee board has anticipated this problem for years.
When it comes to the growth in Liberty Hill, said Board President Gary Henley, the question of whether or not to embrace it has long since become irrelevant.
“It’s if you’re gonna let it run you over or not,” he said.
Henley said that sometime six or seven years ago, the library conducted a long-range study of the growth they had personally observed. Compared to now, it was a trickle (the explosion of subdivisions soon changed that), but even at that time, Henley said, they projected that they would soon need a 25,000-square-foot space, “about the size of Leander’s library.”
By then, the Board had already seen one attempt to expand fall flat.
In 2006, they purchased a lease on a seven-acre lot on Loop 332 near Liberty Hill Elementary School. This, they decided, would be the site for a new library. Then the housing bubble popped nationwide, and in the recession that followed, it became an expensive time to buy property.
The owners of the land graciously allowed the Board to pay only the interest, Henley said, but after a few years, the Board sold it back.
Attempts since then to improve the library’s infrastructure—both ambitious and otherwise—have continued to meet unceremonious ends.
Most recently this past summer, Palmer’s plans to renovate the current space were outlined in an article in Liberty Hill Living Magazine. They needed a new ceiling, new furniture, a more resilient flooring, drywall, new paint, new lights— totaling an amount she estimates now as between $70,000-$100,000.
At the time, Palmer was applying for the Hancher Library Foundation’s $40,000 grant to partially fund these. The rest might have been collected through a GoFundMe or other donations.
But the question quickly came up, Palmer said, as to how much money should go toward renovating the existing space and how much should go toward an entirely new facility. And when she mentioned the lease situation, it only gave trustees more hesitation — why would they renovate a space when the library might move shortly afterwards?
The library did not receive the grant, and so, Palmer said, it didn’t make sense to continue the other donation pushes. But she added that they will be applying again for the same grant this year.
“It’ll be a stronger application this time,” she said.
Much of Palmer’s time is spent writing grant applications now. Currently, she is applying for a $3,000 grant.
Before she became Liberty Hill’s head librarian in 2013, Palmer worked for seven years at the Bee Cave library. And before that, she was a scientist. Her dissertation was in Biological Anthropology, studying how primates use their ears to hunt insects at night. For her master’s degree, she studied Paleontology, the examination of fossil animals and plants.
Her co-worker, Glenda Van Horn, also has a science background. She taught elementary school students the basics of natural science. Her favorite topics to teach the children, she said, were on snakes and other reptiles.
Not coincidentally, “Reptile Day” was one of the 156 programs the library ran for their Summer Reading program, which brought children ranging in grades from Pre-K to sixth to the library for educational activities. These also included stargazing parties with astronomers, mock “slug” races, painting days, and of course, reading hours.
“We have a lot more freedom than the classroom,” Palmer said. “We don’t have to teach to a test.”
One of the biggest draws last summer was the “Big Rig Petting Zoo,” which brought firetrucks, police vehicles, dozers and other large scale equipment to the library parking lot. Children could touch and see the “big rigs,” and speak to the people whose job it is to drive them. Palmer said around 600 people showed up for this event.
That summer’s reading program, the library counted a total program attendance of 12,403. Signing up for it were 797 children, 124 teenagers, and 326 adults. All represented dramatic increases over the 2015 summer program, which itself saw similar increases from 2014.
Though not as numerous as the summer, these programs continue throughout the year for children to attend, such as the After School Activity program on Thursdays, or the storybook readings on Monday and Friday mornings.
But the traditional role of the library as a book-lender still plays a prominent part.
“The activities get these kids in the door,” Palmer said, “and then they usually end up checking out books.
“Parents, too, since they’ll come in with their kids and think, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read,’ but then they usually end up also checking out books with their kids.”
Organized by category and alphabetically by author, the library shelves carry a total of 15,335 books, 500 audio books and 3,200 DVDs, she said.
“I know because we had a guessing competition about it recently,” Palmer added.
One can find spy-thrillers from local author “Abbott, Jeff,” to the magical realism in books by “Zevin, Gabrielle.”
One of the few public WiFi hotspots in Liberty Hill is also hosted here. They never turn it off, even after the library closes at 7 p.m., Palmer said.
“We see people out in the parking lot, 24 hours a day, checking their emails,” she said. “I’ll see people in the middle of the night out here in their cars with their laptops open for their online school.”
Even as the amount of item circulations increase exponentially every year (nearly 6,000 in January, despite being closed for a week), Palmer’s staff has remained the same. One assistant, April Hoffmann, and two clerks, Glenda Van Horn and Shanna Clark.
But the library has in many ways remained a community effort since before it first opened its doors in November 2002.
Its very construction, and the initial raising of funds, was largely volunteer driven.
They came to donate materials. They drove to the site and helped lay the brick and raise the framing. They painted the walls. One man helped with the roof. Another woman donated the hundreds of books she had collected over the years, and people sifted through “warehouses full of books,” Henley said, to help stock the library’s initial collection.
The Development Foundation allowed them to lease on their land, and through cake sales, bake sales, auctions, “you name it,” Henley said, over $43,000 was raised in donations for the construction and staffing.
By the time it opened, the library had no debts for the building.
The effort was all the more remarkable, Henley said, given the divided state Liberty Hill was in at the time.
“There were two Chambers of Commerce and three newspapers, and at first, even two groups trying to build their own library,” he said.
“That’s how divided Liberty Hill was at the time,” he said. The city had only incorporated three years prior.
Before the effort, the closest libraries were in Cedar Park and Georgetown. Leander’s had not yet been built. Later the Liberty Hill library would also donate old shelving and furniture to help start the library in Hutto.
Continuing today, local residents continue to sometimes volunteer their labor and time. Following the library’s inability to renovate this summer, one patron came in to paint the bathroom.
The library’s future in this space is under question, independent of the need to expand or move to a bigger site.
The Development Foundation still owns the land, and the City is—even after the latest talks collapsed over a year ago—still interested in acquiring the park. When negotiations stalled, there was also talk of a museum on the library site.
Palmer said that if the City does acquire it, she’s unsure if it would keep the library there or move it elsewhere. But in the case that the Development Foundation continues to own the land for the indefinite future, she said, she has a feeling that “they would want this space for themselves by five years”— though she emphasized that this is only a feeling.
“We’re in limbo,” she said, given that their uncertain future at the site forecloses most funding for renovation, but without the money for expansion, they must stay in the location.
Their lease, Henley said, does allow for them to double the size of the existing building. But, he continued, the library needs far more than that.
“We need a two- or three-acre lot,” he said. A library on this site could not only accommodate the rapid growth of the community, but could even contain a small reading and coffee area.
There are no plans for a new building.
Because the library is financed by a quarter of a percent of the sales tax, Palmer said that until more businesses come to town, “we’re just going to get busier and busier here.”
Henley said that watching the revenue stream tracks closely the number of new storefronts.
“We saw a jump when the Chicken Express opened,” he said. “And again when the Tractor Supply opened, and even the expansion of Winkley’s. Now, if the HEB on Parmer and 29 came in, that thing alone would pay the salaries for a whole new staff.”