Charleston County leaders have closed the book on a contentious debate over where a new James Island public library should be built.
County Council voted 6-3 Tuesday to build the new 20,000-square-foot library on South Grimball Road, near James Island Elementary School.
Settling on a site appeared to divide the island’s community by race, judging by the standing-room-only crowd that turned out to plead their case Tuesday night.
About two dozen residents spoke publicly, roughly split between those favoring the South Grimball Road site where the former Baxter Patrick Elementary School once stood and those hoping the county would delay a decision to consider other sites.
The island’s black community strongly favored the South Grimball Road site, while most white residents, including James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey, asked council to defer a decision, particularly since the county might be able to negotiate a cheaper price for property on Dills Bluff Road that was favored by the library’s Board of Trustees.
Neither side couched their argument in terms of race but instead argued over each site’s respective accessibility by car or by bus, its relative cost and the wisdom of following the recommendations of the library system’s Board of Trustees. A few white residents also spoke in favor of the Baxter Patrick site, including two who work at the James Island Elementary School next door. And one black woman also urged a delay.
Council’s debate turned heated when Councilman Joe Qualey noted he represented about 25,800 voters on the island, far more than Councilwoman Anna Johnson, who represents about 3,400 there. Qualey pushed for a delay, but Johnson said it was time to choose.
Councilman Vic Rawl noted that disagreements on the island have affected other big projects there, such as Interstate 526’s completion and the widening of Harborview Road. “If we had 25,862 libraries, one for each person on James Island, perhaps we could solve the dilemma we’re facing here,” he said.
Those voting for the Baxter Patrick site included Johnson, Rawl, Chairman Elliott Summey and members Henry Darby, Teddie Pryor and Colleen Condon. Qualey and members Dickie Schweers and Herb Sass voted no.
Condon first supported a motion to delay the vote, but that failed 5-4.
Both she and Summey suggested the ultimate answer might include libraries on both the Baxter Patrick site and one closer to the existing branch at Camp and Dills Bluff roads, which is slated to close.
“We’re making a decision tonight and we’re moving forward, but I think there is compromise in all things,” Summey said.
The new 20,000-square-foot library was made possible by a referendum last November in which voters approved $100 million for renovating or replacing several existing libraries and building two new ones.
The county and James Island Public Service District clashed over an acceptable price for the district’s Dills Bluff property, but the district has said it would reconsider that price on July 22. While the Baxter Patrick site is not as centrally located, the Charleston County School District has offered it at a much cheaper price.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.