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The Detroit Public Library system has a plan to reopen 12 neighborhood branches in July, making this summer the first time the public can visit these branches in person since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
It is welcome news for the 3 million annual visitors the city library system had prior to the pandemic. But it doesn’t mean a return to normal for the Detroit Public Library (DPL). The yearslong shuttering of the branches highlights the challenges of operating aging buildings. It also underscores DPL’s financial battle to get more funding from the City of Detroit, which annually diverts millions in tax dollars intended for libraries to other development projects.
The library branches are often beautiful, historic structures. But the age and size of the buildings worked against them during the pandemic. The branches remained shuttered, according to library officials, because the historic buildings were too small to accommodate social distancing or had an inadequate ventilation system.
3 branches to remain closed beyond July
Three DPL branches will be kept closed for a still unknown length of time. The downtown Skillman Branch will remain shut for at least another year and a half, according to library officials. Two branches, Conely and Monteith, will be kept closed until long-term structural damage to the buildings is fixed, according to documents from a recent meeting of the library commission.
All DPL branches will eventually reopen, said Antonio Brown, the DPL chief financial officer, in an email to Outlier Media.
The DPL has no intentions of “keeping these branches closed permanently,” Brown said, referring to the three that will stay closed past July. “It is our intent to reopen these branches once the repairs have been completed and the major construction activities downtown have been completed.”
The Skillman Branch, 121 Gratiot Ave., will remain closed until at least late 2023 due to the $900 million-plus Hudson’s site development led by billionaire Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock. The Skillman is just a few yards from the block-long redevelopment on Woodward Avenue.
Construction activity has disrupted library parking and access. Initially intended to finish this year, work at the site is now expected to be completed in 2024, according to previous Bedrock statements. The DPL has decided the Skillman will not reopen until the massive development is further along, according to library officials. The “front portion of the building” may be completed by the end of 2023, according to DPL documents, which could allow the Skillman to reopen. Bedrock declined comment for this story.
There is no target date to reopen the two branches in need of major repairs, Monteith and Conely. Monteith, on the east side, needs major work estimated to cost $3.3 million and library officials are awaiting estimates on how much it will cost to repair the west side’s Conely branch after last summer’s historic floods.
Libraries are community centers
Detroit resident Beatrice Rodríguez is a longtime public library patron, including visiting the Conely branch that will remain closed past July.
“I really enjoyed it, and it’s very upsetting that it’s closed,” she said.
In summers, she would take her grandchildren to the Conely to keep up their interest in reading and math. The retiree also visited the Douglass Branch for Specialized Services, closed since March 2020, because it has books in large print type. Since September, she has been using the Campbell branch on Vernor Highway. She appreciates the copiers still cost just 10 cents per copy, compared to 20 cents per copy at many commercial businesses, she said.
“I hope things get back to normal someday,” she said. “So many people rely on the libraries for all sorts of reasons besides books,” including after-school programming and supplemental meals. Both of those services were provided at DPL’s Wilder branch, on East 7 Mile.
Before the pandemic, the Wilder had around 8,000 visitors a month, said Annette Stocks, manager of the branch. It offered after-school programs for students during the school year. During summers, Wilder offered free lunches through partnerships with local nonprofits.
The Wilder reopened in September but with limited services. Because of the restricted capacity to the building, the Wilder is now getting about 1,700 visitors a month, Stocks said. In addition, the library staff answers hundreds of calls a month from the public and responds to online requests, Stocks said.
There’s no doubt that so many need services a library can provide, Stocks said.
“We are doing the best we can right now,” she said.
Library computers with free internet are vital in a city where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35 percent of households don’t have a broadband internet subscription.
The current DPL guideline that staff needs to keep six feet away from customers is challenging.
“You can’t help customers who are using a computer or a printer if you are standing six feet away,” Stocks said. “I find it hard to read a computer screen from that far away.”
During the long shutdown, the number of vacancies on DPL staff increased, according to commission documents. As of December, there were 325 positions, with 171 active employees, 31 furloughed and 123 vacancies. Vacant positions must first be filled by employees currently on furlough. At the Jan. 18 Library Commission meeting, DPL’s Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney did not know the number of people currently on furlough who would be open to returning to work in July, according to meeting notes from Detroit Documenters.
Keeping the neighborhood branches closed for so long has upset many Detroiters.
“So many homes with children rely on libraries for Wi-Fi and computer access,” said Toyia Watts, president of the Charlevoix Village Association, an eastside community organization. “It’s terrible to deny families that service for so long. Having a neighborhood library is a service we pay for with our taxes and yet the city has decided to take that service away.”
Reopening the 12 library branches will cost about $3.1 million, according to notes from the Nov. 16 meeting of the Commission. The DPL is going to have to use reserve funds to pay for the reopenings, according to the meeting notes.
“That means we are going into deficit spending,” to reopen the branches, said Russ Bellant, a member of the seven-member Library Commission, which oversees the DPL.
The difficulty of shouldering the costs of reopening the branches points to an ongoing funding dispute between the DPL system and the City of Detroit. DPL is an independent entity. Commission members are appointed by the board of the Detroit public schools. But the City of Detroit government controls how much the library system gets in tax revenue.
The library system depends mainly on city property tax revenue for its funding. For years, DPL and the city government have been at odds over how many millions the city should divert annually to fund development projects. This system is known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF). It allows municipalities to “capture” the additional taxes from property as it increases in value. A small slice of those extra tax dollars that come from higher property values would usually go to the DPL. But the city, through TIF, instead takes some of that extra tax money to fund developments, often through the agency called the Downtown Development Authority.
This DPL document outlines how many millions it believes the city takes annually from the library system—essentially $3.3 million for the fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The city hasn’t provided information on how much funding specific development projects may have received. For years, the DPL has sought more dialogue from the City over how much revenue is being diverted.
Bellant also points to the $3.3 million estimated cost to repair the Monteith.
“That is the amount the City of Detroit is tax-capturing every year from the libraries.”
City officials point out the DPL had the chance to “opt out” of the Downtown Development Authority’s tax capture process in 2013, but the library system decided to stay in, according to an email provided to Outlier from a city spokesperson. Further, the library has received the tax increment revenues from the area surrounding the Little Caesars Arena that the downtown authority would be entitled to receive, according to the city spokesperson. It isn’t clear how money the DPL has gotten from that arrangement.
Should the city use its American Rescue Plan funding for the libraries?
Many Detroit residents want the city government to use some of its $826 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to upgrade the libraries. The federal funding is designed to offset financial strain on the city and its residents due to the pandemic. Many residents brought up the issue during dozens of meetings last summer when the city hosted community events to ask residents how the federal money should be spent.
The city contends it cannot use its ARPA funds for the libraries because the DPL system is part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District and not the city itself. Library officials contend beyond the school district appointing its commission members, the school system has no jurisdiction over the libraries.
The city may have a point about the ARPA funding, said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan organization that researches policy issues the State of Michigan government and local municipalities face.
“Speaking generally, yes the city has an argument because the DPL isn’t technically part of the city government,” Lupher said. He added hasn’t researched this particular issue.
But if there was “political will” to use ARPA funds for the public libraries, “most people will not bat an eye about it,” Lupher said.
“I think they could do it,” referring to the city government, he said. “It is certainly within the intent and spirit of why the ARPA dollars are there.”
Below is a list of Detroit Public Library branches expected to open around July 1. The date was chosen because it coincides with the start of the new fiscal year.
Bowen, 3648 W. Vernor Highway
Chandler Park, 12800 Harper
Chaney, 16101 Grand River Ave.
Chase, 17731 W. Seven Mile Road
Douglass Branch for Specialized Services, 3666 Grand River Ave.
Duffield, 2507 W. Grand Blvd.
Elmwood Park, 550 Chene
Franklin, 13651 E. McNichols Road
Hubbard, 12929 W. McNichols Road
Knapp, 13330 Conant St.
Lincoln, 1221 E. Seven Mile Road
Sherwood Forest, 7117 W. Seven Mile Road
Louis Aguilar is a freelance reporter. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.