Above: Artist’s rendering of a proposed library in Oneida, NY; Below: Implosion of AutoWorld, a failed tourism initiative in Flint, MI
In the 1989 documentary Roger & Me, filmmaker Michael Moore captures the rapid rise and fall of “AutoWorld,” an ambitious tourism project designed with the purpose to help revitalize the struggling city of Flint, Michigan. At $80 million dollars, AutoWorld cost more than $501 per resident in 1984. The theme park lasted only six months and was later demolished.
Moore’s narrative reminds me of a current situation unfolding in my former hometown of Oneida, New York. The Oneida Public Library (OPL), which is a Special Legislative District Public Library serving the communities of the Oneida Public School District, is currently moving forward with plans for a new library facility expected to be completed in 2016.
Heavy costs may outweigh an unbalanced vision
The new facility’s costs are capped at $6.12 million and will result in 18,000 square feet of space to serve approximately 14,506 residents. At $422 per resident, the library — at scale — is nearly as expensive as Michigan’s long defunct AutoWorld. According to local news reports, organizers of the new library originally promised to finance the project using a mix of grants and private donations. To date, donations and grants comprise less than 50 percent of the $6.12 million. And as recently as the week of December 28, the OPL advanced legal action to try and collect bonds from neighboring towns.
To place the library’s costs in perspective, the City of Oneida lost an estimated 5.8 percent of its population between 1970 and 2000. However, its population slightly rebounded over the last decade with a 3.7 percent increase between 2000 and 2010. A 2013 report from the Madison County Department of Health attributes county population growth to movers since both birth rates and youth population under the age of 5 years old continue to steadily decline across the county. Residents aged 55 and older rank as the fastest growing segment of the county’s population.
Data sourced by the Madison County Planning Department also show that between 2004 and 2010, the inner city of Oneida recorded only 2 residential developments. The same report cites the rising number of vacant residential and commercial properties throughout former community centers, which result in “…negative economic, fiscal, social and environmental impacts.” Thus, the prospect of finding existing space within the OPL’s special legislative district is not likely to cause an issue.
As for the Oneida City School District, which shares virtually the same area as the OPL, its graduation rate is currently ranked the lowest (77 percent) in Madison County. This statistic demonstrates the need for additional support for students, parents and faculty members.
“Library of the year” contender exhibits basic challenges
As for the library itself, its current administration most recently came under fire from the New York State Comptroller’s Office following an audit of its financial practices over a two-year period. Its conclusions allege both a lack of board governance and transparency related to overall handling of money, which “…make thefts and mistakes easy and finding them difficult.”
Aside from its questionable financial practices, the OPL visitation rate is only average among its peers. In 2013, the Institute of Museum and Library Services issued a research brief entitled, “The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States.” The brief cites that visitation per capita for all small libraries (less than 24,999 served) at 5.5. According to OPL spokesperson and Trustee Rick Kinsella, its annual visitation in 2014 was 74,303. Based on a current population served of 15,311, OPL visitation per capita stands at 4.9.
All this from the same library that touts its honorable mention from the Library Journal and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2007 for “Best Small Library of the Year.”
Recommendations from Common Wealth
- Institute equal representation among OPL Board of Trustees to reflect all towns and municipalities potentially affected by the new library — both in terms of services delivered and total financial burden
- Scale back the $6.12 million plan and develop a plan B, which has been glaringly missing since the vote in early 2015
- Instead of inciting conflict among municipalities, align a revised vision for library plan with Madison County’s “Smart Growth” strategies, which will help close the gap between the realities of the broader area’s rural populations and the City of Oneida’s community center
- Ensure a revised library plan is linked to measurable outcomes to (a) improve graduation rates within the lagging Oneida City School District (b) confront needs of residents in and at risk of living in poverty
- Based on a scaled-down plan, audit existing inventory of vacant real estate within the Special Legislative District as a potential redevelopment site to meet broader community needs — within this framework evaluate a “distributed” model that may use raised funds to extend the library’s services to more disparate, rural corners of the Special Legislative District
- Consider the dissolution of the Special Legislative District and formally fold Oneida’s public library into the county in an effort to consolidate publicly-funded services
To read more about Common Wealth’s viewpoints on the OPL, click here.
David M. Grome is a 2003 graduate of Oneida High School where he served as a student representative to the City of Oneida’s Chamber of Commerce. He holds a dual-degree in political science and public policy from Hobart College and resides in Rochester, New York where he serves as marketing communications counsel to brands and organizations around the country.
CORRECTION: On Dec. 31,2015 Common Wealth cited the Special Legislative District of the Oneida Public Library served 14,506 residents. According to OPL Board of Trustees and the Mid-York Library System, the correct figure is 15,311 residents.
In its analysis on visitation per capita, Common Wealth separately cited the population of the entire Oneida City School District, which is listed as 29,615 people based on zip code data from Oneida (13421), Canastota (13032) and Durhamville (13054).
Common Wealth’s analysis also included the 4.8 visits per capita using data from the 2011 State Education Department Annual Report, a figure validated by OPL trustee and spokesperson Rick Kinsella in an op-ed published on Jan. 9, 2016 in the Oneida Daily Dispatch.
UPDATED: Common Wealth originally cited 79,084 visits from OPL’s 2013 records. This figure has since been updated to reflect 2014 data.