OPINION | REX NELSON: Fayetteville steps up

The library doesn't open until 1 p.m. on Sunday, so it's quiet during the lunch hour as David Johnson and I tour the magnificent new expansion in Fayetteville.

This is the facility Johnson has long dreamed about. Johnson, a Little Rock native who first worked at the Fayetteville Public Library in the late 1990s, then returned in 2012 after 15 years working for Tyson Foods Inc. One would expect the city that's home to the state's flagship university would have a strong library system. And Fayetteville does.

"We were drawing about 600,000 visitors a year before the pandemic," Johnson says. "They love their books and their DVDs in Fayetteville. We have 300,000 material items. We needed more space to store items; we needed more classroom space; we needed an event center."

In August 2000, 75 percent of those who turned out in a special election approved a one-cent sales tax for 18 months to help fund a new main library. A capital campaign chaired by Fayetteville civic leader Ann Henry raised funds to complete the project. In February 2002, longtime Tyson legal counsel Jim Blair announced a $3 million donation. The building was named Blair Library to honor Blair's late wife, grandmother and aunt.

Groundbreaking was in April 2002 and construction began two months later. The $23.3 million Blair Library covered 88,000 square feet and opened in the fall of 2004. In 2005, Fayetteville Public Library was named the top library in the country by Library Journal. Fayetteville finished ahead of the library in Seattle and other prominent systems across the country.

The awards kept coming. Blair Library was the first building in Arkansas to be registered with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. In 2006, it was named an American Landmark Library by TravelSmart newsletter and was even cited by The New York Times in the travel section.

By 2006, the number of people visiting the library topped 500,000. By the end of 2012, there were 1.3 million annual checkouts of a collection that had 271,204 books and materials. Eighty-eight percent of Fayetteville's residents had library cards, more than 30 percentage points above the national average.

Blair Library was designed to serve the city for decades. In 2013, however, the board approved a master plan that recommended an expansion due to explosive population growth in northwest Arkansas. An offer was made on four acres south of the library for expansion. A temporary millage increase in 2016 generated $26.9 million toward the project, leaving $23 million to be raised privately. Those fundraising efforts continue even though the expansion opened to the public in January.

Years ago, Johnson would look out the windows of Blair Library toward the closed City Hospital and dream about what he wanted. What was accomplished was beyond his wildest dreams. On our walking tour, I see:

• The 32,000-square-foot Randal Tyson Children's Library.

• A special library for teenagers with a teens-only gaming center.

• A 16-station teaching kitchen.

• The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation. It has audio and video recording studios, a virtual reality studio, a simulation lab, a photography studio, a fabrication lab and a robotics lab.

• An outdoor courtyard and green spaces.

• Various meeting, study and collaborative spaces.

• A 700-person event center.

Johnson is like a kid with Christmas presents as he shows me the automated book-sorting machine, automated book checkout devices, an "art and movement room" where yoga classes take place, a truck driving simulator, a forklift simulator, the podcasting suite and more.

"It's all free to use," he says. "We want to build a culture here that will cause creative people to hang out at the library for hours at a time. A deli will open this fall, and the price of the healthy food items we offer will only reflect the cost of food and labor. Reasonable prices for food will be another way to keep people in here all day."

Earlier this year, Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan told the Fayetteville Flyer: "This library is going to level the playing field for so many in our community. It's going to allow people to go the library to educate themselves. If you're going to have a world-class city, you have to have a world-class library. And we have a world-class library."

Julia Vaulx, the University of Arkansas librarian, led efforts to establish the Fayetteville Public Library in 1916. It first occupied two rooms of the Washington County Courthouse basement and had a budget of $840.15 its first year. The library later moved to a cottage at East Avenue and Meadow Street. In 1937, it moved to the city's administration building and stayed there 25 years.

Irene Galloway became librarian in 1935 and used her "Library Chat" column in a local newspaper to educate residents and attract donors. Vaulx left $1,000 for a building fund when she died in 1955. Gilbert Swanson donated a site on East Dickson Street valued at $35,000 in memory of his mother-in-law, Roberta Fulbright. In July 1959, the city of Fayetteville assumed ownership of the library and later passed a $225,000 bond issue to fund a new building.

Architect Warren Seagraves, a Fayetteville native, designed a two-story building of brick, stone and glass that cost just more than $300,000 and opened in June 1962. It was a hit with residents. That long tradition of supporting the library continues to this day in Fayetteville.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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