Attempts were made several times over the past decade or so to replace the McAlester Public Library building at 401 N. Second Street, but none of those efforts were successful.

Then, the Southeast Oklahoma Library System conducted a study in 2019 to find out what most library patrons wanted — and most wanted to keep the one they had.

"We found the overwhelming majority wanted us to remodel this building," said Southeast Oklahoma Library System Executive Director Michael Hull.

Officials say they want to make McAlester Public Libray one of the unique showplaces in southeast Oklahoma. 

Work is in the planning and fundraising stages for the renovation project, with a new roof already installed on the building at the corner of Second Street and Adams Avenue.

A total of $4.5 million pledged toward the project means officials already met more than a third of the $12 million fundraising goal. The hope is to obtain another large portion through accessing federal funds.

Hull said he hopes to hear in June or July about the library's request for federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

"The state will receive $167 million," Hull said. "We're hoping to access $3 million."

The Puterbaugh Foundation, the Southeast Oklahoma Library System and the city of McAlester each pledged $1.5 million each to give the project a start.

Each of the three entities pledged to donate $300,000 per year over the next five years toward the project.

Plans call for the project to increase the library's square footage with more meeting rooms, study rooms, shared workspace areas, additional room for children and teen services, and more.

Multiple meeting rooms will range in capacity to hold from four to 120 individuals. The largest will be one of the renovated library's main features with an outdoor balcony or terrace with a view to the city's north. It will be available for use by the public for meetings and conferences even when the library is closed.

“We want every group that needs a place to meet to think of the library as their first choice for gathering,” said library manager Heath Stanfield. The rooms will incorporate technology including videoconference equipment for public use. 

Another aspect of the plan calls for the replacement and modernization of many of the building's original components, electrical, lighting and plumbing. Work has already been done to update and modernize the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to current standards and to meet ADA requirements.

Stanfield is already anticipating what the new library will bring, with exact renovations depending on the total amount raised for the project.

He said his hope is citizens think of the expanded library as a community meeting place to study, attend lectures, hold zoom meetings, and more. 

Stanfield said the library will always have books, but it continues offering library services like printing, internet access and Wi-Fi, meeting spaces.

He said some the library’s services came as a result of adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When the pandemic hit, we had to close our doors," Stanfield said.

He said the library put up the website SEOLibraries.com, which provides access to downloadable music, movies, magazines, newspapers and more — all just by using a library card.

Stanfield said officials kept those resources when the library reopened to the public. 

But he said more needs to be done.

“This building was made for a century that has come and gone," Stanfield said. "I love this building; we need to modernize the building for modern accessibility standards, with meeting rooms and handicapped ramps."

Like education, it's an investment, he said.

"We want to empower the next generation to be even better than the previous generation," he said. "A new library is the perfect demonstration of that goal. We'll let it grow and keep that up. We want to reward kids for participating.

"I'm just very proud of the library," Stanfield said. It's not just everyone else's library — It's your library," he said.

Estimates for the cost of the library expansion range from $11.2 million to $12 million.

Hull said earlier, lower estimates for the project cost came before construction costs rose.

He said the $11.2 million is expected to cover all the construction costs, but that's not including the architect's fee. Hull said the numbers were put together in January, including “20 percent for inflation," he said.

Hull said a library should have a definite purpose — and he believes MPL does.

"A library should encourage people to continue their education and development at all ages," Hull said. "We want the library to be the go-to place for learning," Hull said. That includes an aesthetic about the building itself as patrons arrive.

"We want them to be inspired when they walk up to the door,” he said. “When they pull into the parking lot, we want them to be inspired.

"We want this to be a point of civic pride in the community,” he said.

Those planning the new library want all who wish to do so to feel they helped with the project — and they're working on a way to make it attainable.

"In mid-to-late summer, we will start our community fund-raising," Hull said. "We want everyone to have a chance to be a part of this, including community service clubs."

No contribution will be considered too small once the community fund-raising activities begin.

"We want children to be able to bring in their nickels, quarters and dimes and say they helped," Hull said. "We want everyone to be able to say 'This is our library we helped build.'"

Here's the timeline as envisioned by Hull and the others working on the project.

Word should be available in June as to whether the library will be able to access federal funds to help with the library renovation project.

"In July or August we hope to start the community drive," Hull said. If everything goes according to plan, that will lead to the final phases of fundraising for the project.

"By September or October, we hope to wind up the fundraising," Hull said.

"In the spring of 2023, we hope to finalize plans with the architect," said Hull. "In the summer of 2023, we hope to have the groundbreaking."

"Allowing up to 18 months for construction, that would put it in the fall of 1924 for completion, or early 1925," Hull said. "The earlier, the better."

Will the library be closed during the construction period? Yes and no. Plans call for the physical building to be closed while construction is ongoing, but some library services should be available from other locations.

"We will be working with the city to find one or two locations during the closure," Hull said.

Contributions from the Puterbaugh Foundation, the Southeast Oklahoma Library System and the city of McAlester makes it possible for the city to launch its $12 million fundraising drive with more than a third of the amount already pledged.

"This is a group working together to benefit not only this community, but this county," Hull said. "This is going to have a wide-ranging impact."

 Plans call for a major expansion to the north, primarily for parking. Friends of the McAlester Public Library have already purchased two properties adjacent to the north side of the library. Also, the library's new main entrance will be on the building's north side when renovations are complete.

Friends of the Library Treasurer David Beall said the group is glad to help with the project. He too, believes the renovations are needed.

"In reflection, when the library was built 52 years ago, there was no such thing as personal computers," he saud. "There wasn't any internet."

Renovations will help upgrade the library to more modern standards, he maintains. Even the nature of the library itself has changed, he noted.

"A library has become a community center for books," he said.

Beall said the Friends of the Library began 30 years ago, in 1992.

"Our mission statement is to enhance the library and create awareness of the library and its services," he said. Beall said the Friends of the Library plan to continue helping with the project.

"We will continue to cooperate to the extent possible," he said.

Those entering the library after renovations are complete can either walk up the new Learning Sairs that will be constructed at the site or they can take an elevator.

The Learning Stairs are described as broad and they will lead from an opening forum in the lobby into the main library, Stanfield said.

Hull is hopeful another anchor donor will be forthcoming to compliment what's already been pledged by the Puterbaugh Foundation, the Southeast Oklahoma Library System and the city or McAlester,

Hull spoke with SOLS Marketing Director Eddie Gray about the plans. “Although books will remain a major focus of the library for decades to come, we’ll space out the collection to encourage people to gather and incorporate learning technology for all ages," Hull said. He noted there will be spaces dedicated to children and teens, all well as students and for those looking for a place conducive to reading.

He predicted local and county residents will want to bring their out-of-town visitors to the library when it's completed.

"Above all, this library will inspire all who walk through its doors and be a source of community pride," Hull said. 

Meanwhile, the library leadership continues to look forward to the project's completion.

 "We can’t wait to give this community the library it deserves: a library that inspires pride and serves as the community’s living room.” said Hull.

 Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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