Foundation may be last hope for keeping Fort Worth libraries open

FORT WORTH -- All 12 computer stations at the Ridglea Branch Library are in use at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and more people are waiting.

There's a relaxed hum to the building as mothers with toddlers browse the children's section, an elderly man reads newspapers, students do research and friends chat in the book aisles.

A few hours later, the same scene is playing at the Northside Branch Library, where kids squeal in delight when they scamper through the door.

A look of dismay passes over the face of Jen Gordon, who popped in with her two young daughters to snag some DVDs, when asked about Fort Worth's plan to save $1.7 million by closing the Ridglea, Northside and Meadowbrook branch libraries.

"Close these libraries? I would be devastated," said Gordon, 35. "We love them. How could they do that?"

Riled-up neighborhood groups across Fort Worth are asking the same question as the city struggles with a $73 million budget shortfall.

The lone lifeline left for the three branches is a proposal by the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation to raise money to keep them open three days a week.

City staffers have reviewed the proposal and will deliver a report to the City Council at a budget session at 9 a.m. today, city spokesman Jason Lamers said Wednesday.

Foundation CEO Betsy Pepper insists the plan can work.

"We can do this without a doubt. We can raise the money," she said. "We've had a huge response of people wanting to volunteer. It has struck a nerve. People love these branches."

Fort Worth libraries aren't alone when it comes to budget woes.

Across Texas and the nation, declining tax revenue has forced cities to close libraries, reduce hours, lay off employees and park bookmobiles, experts say.

The irony is that the same sour economy has heightened demand for library services by job hunters needing Internet access and families seeking free entertainment.

"It is an unfortunate symptom of the economy. This is the worst time to close a library or shorten hours or days. This is when people really need their library," said Gloria Meraz, director of communications for the Texas Library Association.

More than 77 million people over 14 used a library computer in 2009, according to a study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Seventy-six percent of them searched for jobs online, and 3.7 million reported finding work using a library computer.

Count Luciano Valderas, 55, among those millions.

He regularly uses the Northside library to improve his English, hunt for jobs on the Internet and read magazines.

"I don't think much of the plan to close this library. I use it for everything -- we don't have too much money," he said.

Groups in east, west and north Fort Worth insist the branches are vital neighborhood institutions.

"Meadowbrook is an integral part of east Fort Worth," said Gene Kuhler, president of the Brentwood Oaks Neighborhood Association. "We just feel somehow or other we need to keep those libraries open."

Daniel Flores, president and pastor of Trinity Methodist Church, calls the Northside branch a "wonderful little lighthouse."

"It's right next to a historic school and a string of churches," he said. "It is the hub of the neighborhood."

Bob Bashein, president of the Ridglea Hills Neighborhood Association, says he has received about 200 e-mails or calls about closing the Ridglea branch.

"It's a key part of this neighborhood," he said. "It would be a big mistake to close it."

Fort Worth Library Director Gleniece Robinson is caught in the middle of the money crunch.

After 45 library positions were slashed and hours were reduced by 37 percent in 2008, closing branches is the only option left to cut 10 percent of her $17.4 million budget, she said.

"There is no good choice," Robinson said. "Regardless of any library we chose, we expect somebody is going to be unhappy. I wouldn't say I blame them. I wouldn't expect them to allow us to close those libraries without them standing up and raising their voice for them."

Last year, the Meadowbrook and Wedgwood branches, the oldest, were up for closure before neighborhood protests quashed that plan.

Wedgwood survived this year because the new criteria require a branch in each of the city's nine council districts, Robinson said. Starting Monday, the branch will be closed for a month for remodeling and repairs, including rewiring and asbestos abatement, according to a news release from the city.

Robinson irked neighborhood leaders when she said the library system could improve service by closing "these obsolete facilities" that haven't had infrastructure upgrades since they were built in the 1960s.

"I feel obsolete is better than closed," Kuhler said.

Robinson says her point is that the branches are obsolete by today's standards because of their small size and outdated wiring.

Pepper estimates that the foundation could run the three branch libraries for under $500,000 a year.

The foundation has raised millions for the libraries since it was founded in 1993, she said, including $5 million for a new roof for the central library.

"We believe great cities should have great libraries. We're good but not great," she said.

Bashein hopes the foundation can pull off the deal.

"This is a mess. It's a heck of a situation for the city. We will do our dead-level best to help the foundation raise money."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981