Big plans for small library in Howard

Proposal calls for facility in Ellicott City to house branch, historical society

February 10, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Boasting Howard County's second-highest circulation rate, but one of the older, smaller library buildings, Ellicott City's Miller branch has long been slated for an addition and renovation.

But Thursday night at a Planning Board public hearing, county library Director Valerie Gross intends to unveil ambitious plans for a large new building - one shared with the Howard County Historical Society that could become part of a new complex featuring a school and a senior center and the library/historical society.

"The need is there," said Gross. Most observers agree, but questions remain about the availability of land and money.

"Around midterms, it's pretty crowded," said Caity Robbins, 15, a Centennial High School student who was using one of the library's 14 computers yesterday.

"They could have more computers," said Centennial senior Nick Harclerode, 17, who was using one across from Robbins.

The county's other libraries have 60 or 70 computers, said Ruth Newton, the Miller branch manager. There are plans to add 10 more soon at her library.

The hearing is being held to discuss a laundry list of new or changed capital projects for fiscal year 2005, ranging from four new or renovated fire stations to sidewalks, roads and the library, which would be delayed one year until a study is completed.

County Executive James N. Robey is facing requests for $170 million in capital projects next fiscal year, including $115 million for schools. He is seeking new tax revenue from a reluctant General Assembly delegation to help pay the bill.

Meanwhile, Robey said, he is waiting to see what the Planning Board recommends.

"We're talking a lot of money here," he said, noting that a promised senior center in Glenwood and the police/fire training facility at Alpha Ridge are his top priorities right now. "This is something we'll have to take a look at."

Historical Society officials hope the plan can proceed because their quarters, which are crammed into an old house next to the county courthouse, provides no parking, poor accessibility because of steep steps and antiquated storage for valuable materials.

"We have nothing for the handicapped" and no parking, either, society board member Gladys Wahlhaupter said. Michael Walczak, the society director, said a modern building with parking "would be a major improvement in nearly every way."

A new library/society building in the 9400 block of Frederick Road would require about 10 more acres from adjoining landowner Paul Miller and his family. County school officials also are looking at land nearby as a possible northern elementary school site, said Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board.

Although the addition/renovation plan was estimated to cost up to $8 million, the $15.9 million price tag for a new building - even delayed until fiscal 2006 - might be more than the county can afford.

"Right now may not be the right fiscal climate to look at a new [library] building," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents Ellicott City. "I think that more space is needed, but I'm not convinced that the existing building should be torn down and a new one built."

Gross is excited about a new building shared with the historical society because it would allow a sharing of facilities and services. She is thinking of a 60,000-square-foot building with an art gallery, a 300-seat auditorium for lectures, discussions and musical performances, and shared collections and research.

Paired with the senior center that opened at the same site last year, and possibly with a new elementary school, a new building would be another gem in the county seat, Gross said.

"We would provide unique educational opportunities for students of all ages," Gross said in testimony prepared for the 7 p.m. hearing in the County Council chambers of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Newton said her branch is inadequate, especially in providing computers for patrons.

"We have the second-highest circulation after the central library," she said, with a half-million visits a year and more than 1 million items lent. But despite a major addition and renovation in 1985, population growth and technological advances have overtaken the building, Newton said.

The original 5,000-square-foot building went up in the 1960s on land donated by former County Commissioner Charles Miller, Paul Miller's father, and was expanded to 23,000 square feet two decades later.

Gross said renovations might be difficult because of load-bearing inner walls at the Miller branch, and a new building would reduce transition costs and down time.

Paul Miller and Watson said they support the library/society concept.

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