West Baton Rouge Parish Council vote sets new library plan into motion

Staff Report

A vote by the West Baton Rouge Parish Council got the ball rolling for work on the first WBR library on the south end of the parish.

The unanimous vote at the Oct. 27 meeting authorized Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot to sign papers on the work to convert the old Fred’s Discount Store into a library for the area between Addis and Brusly.

Work could soon begin on conversion of the abandoned Fred’s Discount Store for use as a West Baton Rouge Parish Library for the area between Addis and Brusly.

The Parish Council last June approved the purchase of the building.

The WBR Library Board makes the decision, but the Parish Council signs off on it, Berthelot said.

The 16,000 square-foot building has been vacant for more than three years, going back to the Memphis-based company’s bankruptcy that liquidated its 557-store chain.

The library board had eyes on the building before Tamie Martin came aboard as West Baton Rouge Library Director in 2019.

“One board member pointed it out in my job interview,” she said. “They said they’d love to buy it, but it was leased at the time and the person who had it wanted to sublease it.”

Leasing was not an option, Martin said.

The parish wanted to put the taxpayer money in a purchase because a lease would not be in the best interest of taxpayers.

She said it would be better for the parish to invest in capital it can grow.

The owners had listed the property for $1,550,000, but the parish agreed to a $1.4 million price tag.

State Rep. Edmond Jordon, D-Brusly, secured $200,000 from the state Appropriations toward purchase or renovation of a branch on the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway.

“He has been an advocate for us, and we’ve had many advocates along the way,” Martin said.

The parish plans to eventually build a location on the north end of the parish between Erwinville and Bueche, but the costs of renovating a relatively new building were more feasible than construction of a new facility.

Architect Brad Guerin approached Martin during the expansion plans to consider plans for a facility on the north side of the parish on the land where Caneview Elementary sits.

They entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement with School Board. They agreed to let the parish use it perpetually.

Plans for the site at Caneview moved forward, and the board budgeted $1 million for a 5,000-6,000 square foot branch.

The bids seemed reasonable at the time, but the pandemic took it another direction.

“The bids went through the roof,” Martin said.

Bids have since come up at $2.2 million, due to supply chain issues, a hike in building materials and other items related to the pandemic.

A shortage of subcontractors after the 2021 hurricanes also hampered the plans.

“We have not scrapped that project,” Martin said. “Guerin still has the plans, and they still have the cooperative endeavor agreement in place.”

In the meantime, Martin shifted focus to the south end of the parish.

She said it was always her intention to put a library on the south side and the north side.

There are barriers in both areas.

“On the southside, it’s the traffic, and that’s about to get worse (due to I-10 widening),” Martin said. “On the northside, it’s transportation and socioeconomic, plus some areas still don’t have access to highspeed internet.

“People in the modern world don’t realize there are still areas in Louisiana that don’t have it,” she said. “It’s nine miles from Erwinville to Port Allen, and they don’t have internet. How do kids do homework these days without the internet?”

Martin hopes to resume plans on the north-end library much sooner than later.

In the meantime, focus will on plans for the south end. The location presents very favorable situation.

“It’s between two municipalities – it’s neither in Brusly nor Addis – so neither can stake claim to it,” she said.

The building has a drive-thru that Fred’s used for its pharmacy.

It’s an ideal amenity, Martin said.

“If you have children in the backseat, mobility issues or it’s raining and you don’t want to get out, you can pick up a book they’ve reserved for you, or you can return your books there,” she said.

The location serves another important purpose.

The Lukeville area – between Addis and Brusly – has been historically economically depressed. A library makes a difference in those communities, Martin said.

“I know education and literacy are key factors, and a library can provide opportunities for people to reach their goals in life,” she said.

Because the building is 16,000 square feet, it’s larger than the amount of space the library needs.

Martin said she has formed a committee which includes community leaders coming from the school board, the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Addis, the Town of Brusly, Berthtelot and Rep. Jordan.

“We will determine what’s the best use to help the community in terms of that extra space,” she said.

Martin has had several ideas brought to her already, but she said she cannot make the final call.

“I’ve had several ideas given to me already, but it will be up to that committee and not just up to me,” she said. “I want to know what this community needs, and then I will go to Brad Guerin and he will do some buildout plans for it and we will put it out for bids.”

The jury is still out on an opening date.

Marin said her dream is to have it open by the end of the school year.

If that’s not possible, the library will have the bookmobile and outreach over in the community during summer reading programs, she said.

“We know based on statistics that summer reading is big slide in learning, and those students need stimulation to maintain the knowledge they gained throughout the school year,” she said. “Because we have that property, we will provide that – whether we’re open or not.”

Services will include books, DVDs, Storytime, youth-dedicated services, computers equipped with high-speed internets, printers, fax machines

“It will have story time space, and it will have small study rooms that will be sound proof for visitors to talk in a regular tone of voice without disturbing the library and without Storytime disturbing you,” Martin said. “That’s what we lack here. We provide a lot of services, but we don’t have quiet study spaces, and we want to make sure we have that.”

When she was hired, the board specifically sought out someone who was experienced and ready to expand library services in the parish, Martin said.

She began in September 2019.

“There’s nothing like being in a pandemic during your first year as director,” Martin quipped.

“I saw huge changes in St. Tammany, so my experience was to build and open new branches and remodel branches into modern libraries … that’s not bragging,” she said. “I like change, forward thinking, something new and challenges. There are people who have real problem with change, and I’m not one of them. I hate stagnation.

“I feel WBR is ready for a change,” Martin said. “They embraced the residential growth at Sugar Mill, and those people need the services that come with a large residential influx.

We’ve added parks, we’ve added rec centers and now we need a library. It’s a “quality of life” issue.”

In the end, it’s not an investment geared only at current growth.

It’s about the future, she said.

“We don’t want to invest in a 2023 library,” Martin said. We want to invest in a 2050 library that will serve this community for an extended period.”

Once the Addis-Brusly location is open, focus will resume on the north end. “We will do that when the economy recovers – I’ve promised that,” she said. “You have to be very equitable in providing services to everyone.”