By Jan Worth-Nelson
“Wow!” “Awesome!” “Spectacular!” “A polished community jewel” “Wonderful” “A magnificent legacy”
Speakers at the re-opening ceremony and ribbon cutting Thursday of the renovated Flint Public Library outdid each other with superlatives in the bright sun of a day characterized by cheers, gratitude, and hope.
The $30 million project, created through a broad-based combination of public, philanthropic, and private funds, has been in the works for more than seven years, with actual construction underway for two years while the FPL kept going in temporary quarters at Courtland Center.
As the “like new” structure of the library glimmered in the background, all the major systems of its 90,000 square feet rebuilt and its 180,000 books placed into redesigned shelves, a dozen speakers under a tent — VIPs, philanthropists, and community leaders — celebrated the library’s role as a hub for inclusivity, literacy, and 21st century relevance — a place open to everyone and whose services are free of charge.
There also was a palpable sense of relief and emotional gratitude for something so beautiful to emerge in the midst of local, national, and global turmoil.
“The timing couldn’t have been better for this opening in Flint,” said an exuberant Ridgway White, president and CEO of the C.S. Mott Foundation.
“We are emerging from multiple crises,” White asserted to the crowd of more than 200 spilling out from the tent onto the lawn and stairs up to the library’s front doors. “The community need places to reconnect and rebuild our sense of community — a safe place for us to grow and learn together,” he said.
Flint’s most important single benefactor, the Mott Foundation contributed the largest chunk of support for the project, $15 million out of the $30 million price tag. The Foundation also had provided a “planning grant” that enabled the library to search for and hire its architect, OPN of Cedar Rapids, IA., and construction manager, Clark Construction of Lansing.
The rest of the funds came from substantial grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the Ruth Mott Foundation, many individual and service group donors, and significantly, a $12.6 million bond issue approved by 68 percent of voters in 2019.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley echoed White’s remarks, noting the the city is “emerging from intersections of crises. We are strong, we are one Flint, black, white, rich and poor.” And one commonality, he said, is that, “we can all come here,” to the Flint Public Library.
“Take a pause to understand what this investment means,” Neeley said. “What defines us is how we rise…this investment is for the human interest of our community, how we grow and survive. We are truly one Flint under God’s watchful eye. It’s about vision and moving forward. This is a dynamic day. Savor the moment — there are more to come.
Reta Stanley, president of the FPL board of trustees, noted the importance of the public support. “The people of the City of Flint have shown time and time again that through passing of millages and the bond that they value the library and are committed to the city’s go-to place for lifelong learning,” she said.
Library Director Kay Schwartz got a standing ovation as she stepped to the podium. “I’m overwhelmed” by the significance of the moment, she said, and thanked those “who were not stopped by our community’s economic challenges, not stopped by the enormous scope of what needed to be done to this 60-year-old building, and not even stopped by a worldwide pandemic.”
The Flint Public Library was founded in 1851, she noted. The current structure on Kearsley Street was originally built in 1958 and in recent years had been plagued with a multitude of infrastructure issues.
Schwartz recognized and thanked teams from the architecture firm, OPN, and Clark Construction, saying they had “gone far beyond the usual role” in their design and implementation. “They are now like family,” she said. OPN project manager Toby Olsen, who said he has come to Flint almost monthly for the past two years, brought five others from the Cedar Rapids team to celebrate.
After describing a young Benjamin Franklin, “a guy walking out of a bar,” in 1730 with the idea of combining his books with those of others, thus beginning the American library tradition, Isaiah Oliver, CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint said, “Kay Schwartz is our Ben Franklin.”
“The idea is that you don’t only have your books — we have everyone’s books,” he noted. “This is our place, not just my little piece. Every kid, every resident, gets to say, that’s OURS. We get to celebrate what it means when we collectively come together.
“We are co-creating a future,” Oliver said, “Where people who not only live in their privilege, but people from high concentrations of poverty get to be here together.”
Raquel Thueme, president of the Ruth Mott Foundation, noted the library’s “pivotal role” in the community, filling technology gaps, and creating a “unique civic space for honest and open community conversations.” The library is “one of Flint’s greatest assets and now it’s even a greater asset,” she said.
Supported by Ruth Mott Foundation funds, the children’s section at the library has been moved and expanded, redesigned, and named the Ruth Rawlings Mott Children’s Learning Center.
Thueme said the library continues its “reputation for respecting and serving all people,” and makes manifest Ruth Mott’s devotion to “inclusivity, kindness, and hospitality.”
One theme of speakers’ remarks was the importance of the library to knowledge and truth.
Representing U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Dondre Young said, “Public libraries are more than buildings that house books. They are one of the great educators.”
Quoting from Barack Obama, Young said, “Libraries remind us that truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information. The Flint Public Library will continue to be a source for the right information.”
Flint Southwestern Academy graduate and recipient of $1 million in college scholarships T.K. Thomas, 18, recalled that as a seven year old visiting the library, “I wondered why are there so many books,” but eventually found his way to the knowledge available there. He discovered James Baldwin, one of “my most favorite authors” and has been inspired to become a writer himself.
“Knowledge is something that no man can take away from you,” he said, saying he hopes someday to find his own books “in this very building.” He concluded, “Pick up a book and read it.”
Flint Community Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones described to the crowd’s laughter how day after day, passing by the construction site on his way to the FCS headquarters just a few yards away, he heard hammering, hammering, and knocking, knocking, knocking,
“Every knock was an opportunity,” Jones said, not just for the residents but for the “scholars” — FCS’s students. He pleaded for the community next to get new buildings for the district. “Our scholars do deserve this, new buildings — our children have been through a crisis, we’ve all been working together to do what’s best for our scholars — I can’t wait for the day that we can do what you’re doing, to build new buildings and do what’s best for children.”
“Flint kids and residents deserve the best, and this is the best,” Ridgway White concluded to cheers and applause.
Brian Larkin, treasurer of the library’s board of trustees, was emcee for the day’s events.
As of Saturday, the official opening day, the library, at 1026 E. Kearsley St., will be open five days a week: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. More information is available at 810-249-2038, www.fpl.info.
.EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org