Blog: Josie Parker

What is the role of the public library in the digital age? Where does it draw its funding? How is it impacted by downtown development? Josie Parker, director of Ann Arbor's District Library, weighs in on the future of one of our city's most beloved institutions.

Josie Parker - Post 2: Downtown Development & The Library

The development of the Downtown area in Ann Arbor has been a discussion the entire 17 years I've lived in the area. I never expected it to become central to my own career or daily work, but it is, and likely will be for a number of years. I watch and listen to conversations, take note of every vote for and against development in and around Downtown, and listen to the interminable debate over what constitutes the Downtown in Ann Arbor. I can't help believing that the point is being missed. Entirely.

I saw, as an employee, the Ypsilanti District Library fail to gain the support of historic and preservation groups, and Downtown neighbors for a new, modern public library to be built in the old high school building on Cross Street. The new building was built outside of Downtown in Ypsilanti Township and while it is very well utilized, and the Downtown building was remodeled, the community missed a great opportunity to place an anchor in the struggling Ypsilanti Downtown.

I saw, as an employee, the Chelsea community commit to their public library remaining Downtown. It was a difficult conversation. A village was becoming a city, and the Library was becoming a district with taxing authority. The votes were always close; the discussions were vigorous and often heated. In the end, that community had a big idea about a small town library and they made it happen. The investment is paying off for the Chelsea Downtown area.

I have never worked at the Dexter Library, but I have watched with great interest how a small town has kept its downtown vital and thriving with a variety of businesses even while losing a major supermarket. The new Dexter Library is an anchor to that development.  

Libraries can be drivers of economic development, but are not in charge of economic development. If decisions to develop city owned, other publicly owned property, and private property are ever made for Downtown Ann Arbor, whatever is decided will have a major impact on the public library Downtown. By the same token, deciding not to develop vacant property adjacent to or near the Downtown Library will have an impact on the future of that Library in that location.

So what do I think is being missed in the local discussion about development in Downtown Ann Arbor? What's missing is consideration of the larger area and all the people and entities affected by decisions about Downtown. The decision should not be exclusively a local one. While a city is funded with local taxes, it can and often does, include entities whose boundaries are larger and whose constituents live outside of the city and commute for miles. The development of a Downtown is a big responsibility held by a few, but affecting far more people than those who pay directly into a city's coffers. It is critical that we take the long view and acknowledge all of the different investments that are made to assure our community a vital and thriving Downtown.