FAYETTEVILLE -- Five-year-old Campbell Buckley explored an indoor space Tuesday other than her home for the first time in months.
The preschool section of the newly expanded Fayetteville Public Library provided ample room. Her mom, Renee Buckley, clutched 1-year-old daughter, Tess Buckley, as other people slowly flowed into the building.
The library opened Tuesday without fanfare or a ribbon-cutting featuring oversized scissors, but with an additional 82,500 square feet.
Renee Buckley's oldest daughter, Barrett, was at school in her second-grade class. The family planned another outing soon.
"We've been dying to have it reopen," Renee Buckley said. "The kids have been asking nonstop."
A handful of people stood outside at the entrance when the doors opened at 9 a.m. The building closed in late September while crews moved furniture, books and other material -- and made finishing touches.
Executive Director David Johnson said administrators intentionally kept the opening low-key because of the covid-19 pandemic.
"I had some concerns about a big crowd this morning that may have put people at risk or made people uncomfortable. We didn't want to do that, so we quietly opened," he said. "I've seen lots of people enjoying the spaces with eyebrows raised and oohs and aahs. Those are the kinds of things where you think, 'All right, man, we did good.'"
Library staff kept track of the number of people coming in and out of the entrance at Mountain Street and School Avenue. The building was limited to 200 peoples, with an additional 100 staff members.
Nanette Whitby, her twin sister, Anita, and their friend David Burrough were among the first people to set foot in the building Tuesday. The design impressed Nanette Whitby with its spacious interior and seamless transition from the old space to the new, she said.
"The energy of the building flows nicely," Nanette Whitby said.
The lack of fanfare was actually kind of nice, Burrough said. The group didn't have to wait to get in.
"We were thinking about camping out, but kind of ruled that out," he said.
Within the next week or two, library employees will use a system connected with the building's surveillance cameras that can automatically track how many people come in and out, and where, Johnson said. At that point, they'll be able to open the entrance from the parking deck and the doors going directly into the children's areas from School Avenue, he said.
Planning for the library's expansion began in 2013. A yearslong legal battle over the land to the south where the expansion reaches was settled in 2017. Demolition and groundwork began in July 2018, and in March 2019, there was a formal groundbreaking.
The pandemic closed the library from March to mid-May. It opened in a limited capacity before closing again in late September to finish the expansion. While it was closed, patrons could still check out materials with curbside pickup, but browsing was nixed.
Katrina Britton and her five children, Isaac, 7; Josiah, 6; Adoniah, 5; Silas, 3; and Hosanna, 17 months, welcomed being back inside.
"It just hasn't been quite the same, picking books up on the curbside and finding the titles online. You have to know what to look for," Katrina Britton said. "When I can just bring them here and turn them loose and be like, 'Go find something that looks interesting,' it's so much easier and very engaging to them."
Britton's children dispersed among the preschool section on the ground floor and grade school section a floor above. The airplanes and helicopter hanging from the ceiling over the brightly colored and well-lit children's area caught everyone's eyes, she said.
"I think it's really amazing how huge it is, for one thing," Katrina Britton said. "The natural light through the windows is nice. It makes it a very welcoming and nice place to explore. The variety of books here is wonderful."
The expansion puts the library's total size at 170,500 square feet. Some areas don't yet have programming, such as the 700-seat event center and deli and teaching kitchen.
Joe Covey scoped out those areas with his 11-year-old son, Atlas, who said the kitchen would probably be his favorite part if it had been open. Staff let the two take a peek at the Hunt Family Center for Innovation, which, when operational, will feature a recording studio, filming and editing studio, flight simulator, virtual reality and fabrication labs and other technological hubs. In the meantime, the center is locked.
Joe Covey said the courtyard facing West Avenue also caught his eye. He said he's excited about what might be planned once the weather improves and the city's work to turn the nearby Fay Jones woods into a nature attraction is complete.
"I just imagine that's going to bring a lot of people, and it'll be a good community space outside," he said. "I'm impressed with all the landscaping."
Programming will grow as covid-19 vaccines become more available and the public becomes more comfortable with spending time in public spaces, Johnson said. The library will operate at its usual hours, and eventually, some sort of event will celebrate the new space, he said.
Peak capacity Tuesday afternoon reached 98 people, Johnson said.
"Our mission was accomplished," he said.
Despite limited programming and capacity, Tori Burge said having something for her two children to do indoors while the weather is cold was a blessing.
"With two littles, it's kind of our outlet to go discover things, especially during this time," she said.
Her 3-year-old son, Micah, checked out some books featuring Clifford the Big Red Dog, as well as some books on sharing. The sharing books will come in handy with his 1-year-old sister, Millie, Tori Burge said.
Voters approved a property tax hike in 2016 to help pay for $26.9 million of the expanded library's $50 million construction cost and increased operations. The library foundation's effort to raise $23 million to cover the rest of the construction cost is about halfway to its goal, Johnson said.
At a glance
The expansion nearly doubles the library’s size. Youth services have dedicated sections for preschool, grade school and teenagers. People will have more room to collaborate, work, study and learn, although most of those spaces are closed because of the covid-19 pandemic. A 700-seat event center will serve as a midsized venue for a variety of functions. Genealogy research has a dedicated section. A teaching kitchen and deli faces School Avenue. An innovation center will allow residents to create their own music, videos and podcasts. Simulators will provide workforce training in aviation, trucking, construction and other fields.
Source: Fayetteville Public Library
Stacy Ryburn can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stacyryburn.