One of the most brilliant and effective collaborations in Tacoma’s history will end this month.
To make do with a disastrous budget, the Tacoma Public Library on Jan. 31 will close the Swan Creek Library and Literacy Center at 3828 Portland Ave.
Judged by the same criteria as other branches, it makes paper sense. Circulation is comparatively low. The building, one of the newest in the system, is estimated to need about $500,000 in repairs.
The hitch, as the facility’s long name suggests, is that Swan Creek is not like other libraries.
Since 2001, Tacoma Community House has operated English classes, 15 computers and assorted services, including, lately, a domestic violence program for immigrants. The staffers – three full-time and one part-time – and a student intern adapt the program as needs change.
A decade ago Swan Creek was under-performing, so library leaders re-imagined it. They invited Community House to bring part of its program there, rent-free.
The result satisfied on all fronts. The building was busy. People who came to classes often checked out materials, so circulation rose. In the most diverse neighborhood in Tacoma, the collection included works in Russian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Spanish.
Schoolkids whose families couldn’t afford computers could use the Community House machines. Families fueled a growth spurt in the area, and this was a walkable, friendly, free destination for them. It was a tool for people working their way out of poverty and into the blessings this nation offers those with education and skills.
It was a treasure.
That’s why on Friday, representatives of Tacoma Housing Authority met with Community House Executive Director Liz Dunbar.
The housing authority has redeveloped Salishan, a once-seedy public housing project dating to World War II, into a mixed-income neighborhood on Tacoma’s East Side. Swan Creek Library is right across the street.
“We value your work very highly,” THA Executive Director Michael Mirra told Dunbar. “It has special pertinence to Salishan. We want to think about finding a space for it in Salishan.”
There is a possible long-term solution, Mirra said.
The housing authority intends to build an education, retail and training center with a library as its anchor tenant. It also wants a child care center, bank and grocery at ground level. It would be a good place for a youth program like Boys & Girls Club, higher education and job skills classes, Mirra said. THA’s program would be a perfect fit.
The plan is for the new building to be next to – and about the same size as – the Kimi and George Tanbara, M.D., Health Center. But it’s on hold. With the recession, funding has slowed and tenants have dropped out of the project. It’s now about $11 million and three years in the future.
In a way, that is good, said Nancy Vignec, THA’s director of community services. The extra time will allow for more planning.
For now, however, Dunbar and the Swan Creek staff are figuring out how to cram their classes and programs into the already-full Tacoma Community House on the Hilltop. They’ve told students about the library closure.
“The students are very upset,” said Diane Bruckner, one of the Swan Creek ESL teachers.
That East Side presence will be a loss for all, she said, and a short-term solution that gets it back can’t come too soon.
Friday’s meeting laid out the basics for it.
The program needs the equivalent of three classrooms worth of space, and wiring to support those 15 computers. Most classes meet in the mornings and need tables and chairs that don’t have to be put away at the end of the day.
It must all be free.
Mirra laid out a list of options based on empty or under-used spaces at Salishan.
One of the rehabbed historic homes has not sold and is not being used. Dunbar doubted the small rooms would accommodate the class sizes.
The Family Involvement Center has classroom space. The question is whether there’s room in its schedule for Community House programs.
Other owners and programs in Salishan might have space, Mirra said, as well as the willingness to let Community House use it free of charge.
It was a productive first conversation.
Let’s hope there don’t have to be many more before the East Side has its treasured Community House program again.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677