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An Evanston Public Library branch in the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building would be “ideal” and complement the other services intended to be housed in the building once its renovation is complete, the head of the organization told the Evanston Public Library Board last week.

“It is becoming even more apparent that a library space would just be ideal as we think about the expanded opportunities for our center,” Dara Munson, Family Focus President and Chief Executive Officer, told Library trustees at their May 18 meeting. 

Evanston Public Library Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons.

Coming out of the pandemic, “there should be a space for quiet and peace and calm,” Munson said, to go with “whatever critical services are provided to support mental health.” 

Evanston Public Library is among the community-based organizations working with Family Focus officials to explore the future uses of the agency’s building in the Fifth Ward at 2010 Dewey Ave., as part of a larger concept for the Foster campus. The ward been without a library branch since the early 1980s.

Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, who is retiring in June, reported earlier this year she was talking with Family Focus officials about housing a branch library if a teen space were to be included. The space would be larger than the 6,000-square-foot library at the Robert Crown Community Center.

In January 2021, Family Focus merged with the Chicago Child Care Society, based in Hyde Park. Munson, who joined Family Focus after the merger, was invited to the May 18 meeting to talk about the agency’s perspective on the prospective library.

Family Focus is one of the community’s longest-established and most respected social service organizations. It dates back to the mid-1970s when the organization started as a storefront providing a place for parents with young children to gather. Delores Holmes, retired Fifth Ward Council member, led the organization for 27 years.  

The Grandmothers Raising Grandkids writing group is one of the groups housed at Family Focus. Credit: Submitted photo

As much as half of the Family Focus building is currently underutilized, Munson told trustees. The building currently houses early childhood home visiting, the Family Advocacy Center, after-school programs, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and community partnership initiatives such as the Foster Street Urban Agriculture program. 

Munson said a major renovation is needed “just to keep our current tenants stable.” In fact, the agency has asked the city for $3 million in federal American Recovery Plan Act funds. Family Focus has also secured a $1 million grant from the state and another $1 million from the federal government, said Munson, adding that “our tenants do an amazing job of serving the community.”

“So we’re looking at rehabilitation of this building in a couple of phases,” she told trustees. “The first is much-needed work, much-needed repair, so the tenants can actually come back safely.”

Beyond that, the plan is “just to continue to establish a fully redeveloped center,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy right now around the Family Focus Center and what it could be for the Fifth Ward, especially as District 65 is starting construction on their new school, which is just adjacent to Family Focus.”

Board applies breaks to bookmobile project

Library trustees took no action on the issue. But Munson’s report appeared to have a bearing on another agenda item: whether to hire a consultant to design a book-and-technology mobile. 

Trustees have shown interest in bookmobiles as a way to bring services to underserved areas of the city. The hiring of a consultant for $8,100 would be a first step. The consultant would create a concept, put out requests for proposals and establishing a timeline, said Danczak Lyons in a memo.

If approved and ordered by 2023, a book-and-technology mobile unit could be ready by 2025. Costs could run as high as a half million dollars, said Danczak Lyons.

Skokie purchased a book-and technology-mobile for $332,000 some five years ago, but that figure does not include hiring an engagement team or the upkeep, gas and maintenance of the vehicle.

In discussion, several trustees referred to the possibility of a west side branch in the Family Focus building and holding off approving a consultant.

Debate over which path to take

A bookmobile did come up in the listening sessions the library held earlier this year to gauge community interest in services, noted Tracy Fulce, Board President. But “I personally don’t feel that I heard an overwhelming ‘We need a bookmobile.’ And given that a bookmobile is going to be half a million dollars to get one and then staffing it regularly seems like an enormous expense, I would like to feel much more confident that residents want this.”

Trustee Shawn Iles said he, too, was “reluctant to go down the bookmobile path. I think it’s clear that the Fifth Ward branch is more important. … It’s more in line [with where] we want to go than the bookmobile.

“I like the bookmobile,” Iles said. “But I also recognize the limitations of our budget. I think a lot of Evanstonians expressed interest in the bookmobile; they’ve seen it successfully run in Skokie.” However, he said, “Skokie has twice the budget we do per capita.”

Trustee Benjamin Schapiro agreed the Fifth Ward is and has been a priority for the Board. And a two-year lead time for a bookmobile “really tells the community, ‘Well, you just have to wait a little while longer,’” he argued.

“And you’re still not going to get a 10,000- or 12,000-square-foot facility. You’re going to get a 100-square-foot bookmobile, and you’re going to share with everybody else.”

New Library trustee Russ Shurbet expressed an alternate view. “Most people seem to be saying is there something more immediate [than a bookmobile], yet my understanding is that we’ve been talking about the Fifth Ward [branch] for about 10 years now, at least. If this Family Focus [initiative] pans out it’s another four years.”

On top of that, he referred to reports that the Fifth Ward is gentrifying and people are being pushed out. “A bookmobile, something that’s mobile, I think it’s important,” to bring in services to places, he said. “I don’t think it’s a this-or-that, an A or B. I think it’s a supplemental [service]”.

On Schapiro’s motion, the Board voted not to move forward with the bookmobile project at this time, placing the contract with the consultant on hold until a time the Board feels it is appropriate.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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