One of New Canaan’s most compelling attributes is its sense of community, in particular the cooperative and supportive nature of our citizenry. Growing up here, I have always been most proud when New Canaan public entities and private donors work together to invest in institutions and activities that are iconic to our identity: leading edge schools and sports programs, caring community services and iconic traditions like carol singing and Waveny’s Fourth of July celebration. During this unprecedented and difficult time of COVID, I have been proud to see New Canaan come together in its best nature to support neighbors and turn out for events like the peaceful protest and the New Canaan High School graduation parade.
Therefore, I am very dismayed and saddened by the mean-spirited and rancorous rhetoric coming from a small number of disgruntled citizens about the longstanding and exemplary service that the New Canaan Library has provided to our community for more than 140 years. Our library is one of our most successful examples of a public-private partnership that serves our community and enhances our town. We are extremely fortunate to have an association library, an uncommon model of library ownership and governance except for in certain towns in New England. Our library is an independent non-profit that provides world class library services to our community using a combination of private donations, volunteers and a yearly operating grant from the town of New Canaan. Because the library is an association vs municipal organization, New Canaan tax-payers benefit from annual fundraising that supports 30% of the annual operating costs as well as all of the maintenance and capital costs of the buildings and grounds. We are also extremely fortunate to attract and retain extremely competent and committed staff and volunteers at all leadership levels of our organization.
Since its founding in 1877, our library has always, and only, been focused on serving the public good of our community. During public emergencies like Superstorm Sandy and the recent COVID-19 quarantine, library staff and volunteers have pivoted nimbly to provide extraordinary service and support the community’s most basic needs. During normal operating times, the library sees up to 1000 visitors a day and has developed an array of programming, events and services that has been vastly oversubscribed and has brought some of the country’s most notable and prize-winning authors to town. And the library has done this in an outdated building that is poorly designed, inefficient, leaking, flooding and expensive to operate and constantly repair. The building is so bad, in fact, that the library had to rent space at Woodway Country Club to accommodate the oversold crowds interested in attending recent events with celebrity authors such as Ann Patchett and Nelson DeMille. To note, all of the work to create and maintain this cherished community gem has been done without ever going to town to cover cost overruns or ask for capital contributions. The library team is a proven, highly competent and responsible partner in all they have undertaken.
New Canaan is the only town in Fairfield County that has not rebuilt or redesigned its library. In fact, our library hasn’t been renovated since 1979. Like the good partner it has always been, the leadership of the New Canaan Library has worked fervently for many years to bring a modern, well-designed, efficient and well-executed building to New Canaan and enhance New Canaan’s village by including a Library Green that could be used for both library programming and public space. Not only that, they have followed a well-organized and professional process to gather community input through independently conducted focus groups, consider alternative designs and their financial implications, coordinate with town leaders and, most importantly, plan and execute a private fundraising effort to raise $25 million of the $35 million in projected cost. In accordance with town requests, the library team raised $16 million of private leadership funding and pledges from over 175 donors in the space of just one year. We accomplished this agreed upon milestone to demonstrate the project’s wide-spread community support and commitment prior to asking town for a $10 million contribution, a financial contribution which is in line with neighboring town projects. In addition, a private donor paid to have an economic impact report commissioned which demonstrated that in addition to providing world class library resources, this new building project would provide a needed boost to New Canaan’s lagging downtown economy. All of this has been done with talented and committed volunteers and private donations. Throughout the entire process, the library has continued to be a responsive and reliable partner with the town. The library has, and continues to, meet often with town leaders and work cooperatively to make this valued resource become a reality for our community.
So why would anyone disparage the competence and dedication of library staff and volunteers? Why would they suggest that the library’s motivation is not in line with public feedback or the public good? Who would twist information to suggest that the Library is a burden to taxpayers, rather than a tremendous benefit? Why would anyone suggest discarding years of work and investment so the town could buy or save an outdated building that has no purpose and would cost millions to reconstruct?
The only answer is because this small group of people have their own agenda or opinions on what library should build, despite never actively engaging as volunteers or donors. I am sure that they are disappointed in the Town Council vote (10-2) this spring that denied the Preservation Alliance’s request to tie building design and preservation to town funding. It is much easier to criticize, stoke fears, and misconstrue than it is to work diligently to create a viable plan, cultivate donors, fundraise and coordinate with constituents to create valuable change. Sadly, this small group has chosen instead to attack a valued institution that so ably serves our town and to obstruct a well-designed and feasible project. This not the type of behavior New Canaan prides itself on as a community. This is not the behavior that gets ringing endorsements on social media nor attracts new families to our community. It is distracting and disrespectful. C’mon New Canaan—we are better than this.
For 140 years, New Canaan has reaped great economic and cultural benefits from the New Canaan Library, the cherished center of our community. We now stand to benefit to an even greater extent by providing a resource that can help us compete with our surrounding towns at a time when our real estate market and economy are beginning to revive. C’mon New Canaan—it is time to act and show the world what our town is really made of.