Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
In 1941, Macon County librarian Lassie Kelly used state funds to purchase new books and a bookmobile to visit rural areas of the county. The bookmobile was a 1936 Chevrolet truck converted with shelves to hold 280 books. The truck was purchased for $186, shelving cost just shy of $7, and other miscellaneous costs brought the total cost to $197.70. In 1941-1942 the bookmobile cost $22.09 to operate and travelled 910 miles around the county, specifically to reach areas such as the Nantahala Community.
It wasn’t until 1986 when a library branch staffed by volunteers, was started in the Nantahala Community Building to offer better library service to the residents of the remote portion of Macon County. The Nantahala Community Library joined the Fontana Regional Library system, which was established by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1944 to provide library services for its workers on the Fontana Dam.
By 1998, the Nantahala Community Library was preparing to move from the community center to a new facility which was owned by Macon Program for Progress at the time. The facility was situated on the Nantahala School property which the library has occupied ever since.
Now, nearly 25 years later, the Macon County Board of Commissioners are moving forward with renovations to a building on White Oak Lane that will house both the library and a community center located on White.
The need for renovations for the current 1,800 square foot Nantahala Community Library has been a consistent conversation over the last decade. Macon County provides Fontana Regional Library with about $1 million a year in operation costs for all three libraries in the county. In addition to the operating budget, Macon County pays the utility bills on the facilities, as well as the maintenance on the buildings. In the past, as the Nantahala Library has needed repairs, funds have been provided out of the county’s maintenance budget, in addition to the operation dollars provided to Fontana Regional Library.
Commissioners have grappled with issues surrounding the Nantahala Library dating back to 2018. The library, a double-wide trailer on the property of Nantahala School, has been in operation since 1999. In September 2018, Nantahala resident Ed Trask spoke to commissioners about a survey that was conducted seeking input from Nantahala residents on the future of the Nantahala library location.
Commissioners cast a split vote to purchase the White Oak property in April 2021 on a motion made by Commissioner Paul Higdon. The vote to purchase the property was split because at the time of the purchase, the library nor its community stakeholders had been consulted about moving to the new property.
When asked where community residents would like to have a new library, the White Oak Flats area received the most responses. However, almost as many residents requested that the library stay at the existing location, citing centralization, easy accessibility, convenience and safety.
“When the library board learned that the county had made an offer on the building on White Oak Lane, they were surprised,” said Fontana Regional Library Director Karen Wallace. “They had not been previously approached by the county about this as a possible location for the library. The library board then notified the county commissioners of their preference to remain at the current location (near the Nantahala School). Nantahala School Board member Missy Evans contacted the board of commissioners to let them know she views the public library’s adjacency to the school as a security and safety risk. The library board then asked the school board for a decision about the library’s continued presence on the campus (did they welcome the library or not)? The school board never gave the library board a response to that question.”
The White Oak building is 2,400 square feet and commissioners voted during the July Board Meeting to continue moving forward with building renovations with the intent for the library to occupy half of the space with the other half being used as a community building. The shared space will give the Nantahala Community Library 1,200 square feet, a decrease in size compared to its current 1,800 square foot space. While decreasing library services and offerings to fit the new space is not ideal for the library, Wallace said the board acknowledges that the new White Oak building will be the best option to get the desperately needed facilities.
“Although not our first choice – first choice being to remain on the school campus – we felt that this was the best opportunity for us to relocate the library in that community,” said Wallace. “It’s unlikely that the county commissioners will agree to purchase another piece of property and fund a new library when they’ve already purchased this building. It’s unlikely that the school board will agree that we’re welcome on the school property (in a new building). But we can’t stay in the building we’re in because it’s deteriorating.”
Macon County’s July vote moves forward with architectural design solicitation to develop the building to house both the library and a community building for residents of Nantahala.