Federal pandemic relief money has meant many different things for Western North Carolina communities — new equipment for law enforcement, expanded nonprofit programming or improved sewer systems.
For the town of Fletcher, it could also mean a new library.
Officials in Henderson County’s second-largest municipality are looking to use part of the town’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation to build a new library branch.
While no plans are set in stone, a revamped facility for Henderson County’s oldest library building is high on the list of potential ARPA-funded projects, Fletcher Town Manager Mark Biberdorf said.
“The current building is really old and has maintenance issues,” he said about the facility built in the late 1980s. “It’s also very well used.”
Federal money for a local building
The federal government designed ARPA, a trillion-dollar piece of legislation passed in spring 2021, to pull the nation out of the wreckage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury, which began disbursing ARPA funds to local governments last summer, set a list of qualifications a project or program must fall into to be covered by ARPA.
Some of the acceptable expenditures included improving communities’ infrastructure, expanding access to broadband and investing in nonprofit organizations’ programming.
A new library checks all of these boxes. And since Fletcher’s library is a frequently utilized resource in Henderson County, officials are keen on the idea of using federal dollars to build a new home for what Biberdorf called the county’s busiest library branch.
“We’re trying to make (ARPA) as impactful as we can,” Biberdorf said. “This is an opportunity.”
According to the State Library of North Carolina, the Henderson County Public Library System is the 12th-most visited library system per capita in the state. The Institute of Museum and Library Services showed more than 509,000 Henderson County library visits in 2019.
The rich history of a town library
Fletcher’s library, located off U.S. 25, is not only the busiest branch in Henderson County’s public library system, but it is also the oldest library building, according to the county’s library director, Trina Rushing.
The Fletcher library opened in 1977 in a mobile classroom building provided by the Henderson County Board of Education.
“When it was determined that a permanent facility was needed a Friends of the Fletcher Library was organized which raised funds for this facility,” Rushing said. Friends of the Henderson County Public Library is still a vital partner for the county-run library system, raising more than $100,000 annually through sales at its used-book store.
Fletcher’s current facility opened in 1988, Rushing said, and while book lovers heavily utilize the aging building, it is not currently equipped to keep up with Henderson County’s rapid growth.
“The square footage of the current facility is being fully utilized and leaves no room for expansion of collections or services,” Rushing said.
“A new library with additional square footage would provide more space to serve the growing Fletcher community.”
Henderson County’s population grew by more than 13,000 residents from 2009 to 2019, census data shows. As the county expanded, the library continued to be heavily used.
About 84% of people in the Henderson County Public Library’s service area had library cards in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That’s more than neighboring Buncombe County, to which only about 56% of residents had library cards in 2019.
Partnerships for more ARPA funding
While no dollar amount for a new facility has been solidified, it’s unlikely that the town of Fletcher can foot the bill alone with a $2.7 million ARPA allocation.
To increase funding for the building — which Biberdorf said the town hopes to be multipurpose, potentially also being the new home of a community college or the town’s emergency services department — Fletcher is looking to team up with Henderson County, which will receive more than $22 million in ARPA funding.
Henderson County has only used roughly $500,000 of its ARPA money to establish antibody infusion clinics at Pardee Hospital and AdventHealth in Hendersonville. Henderson officials also plan to use ARPA for broadband expansion, County Manager John Mitchell said.
But aside from these two expenditures, Henderson County is still determining where the remainder of the COVID recovery money will go, which leaves room to collaborate with smaller communities like Fletcher.
“Those discussions are ongoing,” Mitchell said about Henderson County and Fletcher partnering for a new library.
“That’s about as clear as I can characterize it.”
Mitchell also said the county is considering teaming up with other local municipalities to spread the funding throughout the area. Mills River, Hendersonville, Flat Rock and Laurel Park also received the ARPA allocations.
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners will have ARPA discussions at each of its monthly meetings to take community input on how the dollars should be spent. Per federal Treasury guidelines, all ARPA money must be allocated by 2024.