Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

The new hours are part of Executive Director Melissa Schneider’s goals to expand access and services

Feb. 15, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Later this month the Winter Park Library will be open on Sundays for the first time since before the pandemic.

The new hours from noon to 6 p.m. starting on Feb. 25 are the result of increased investment in the library by the City of Winter Park through its Community Redevelopment Agency.

City Commissioners last year approved an additional $350,000 contribution to the library, which allowed Executive Director Melissa Schneider to fill an additional seven full-time equivalent positions.

The extra staff will make the Sunday hours possible along with expanded access to the library’s archives, technology and maker spaces, which were previously only available by appointment.

Schneider said there will be an emphasis on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs within the city’s CRA, which exists to help the area near downtown become more economically vibrant.

So far she said the bump in library users that resulted from the opening of the new building at the end of 2021 next to MLK Park and also within the CRA has held steady. A gala last weekend raised $200,000 for the nonprofit library.

“The first year we thought maybe this was an anomaly,” she said. “But so far we’re maintaining where we were in 2024. We’re anticipating this is going to be our biggest year yet.”

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Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Monday’s forum at the Winter Park Library was the first of the election season

Jan. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Commission Seat 2 candidates Jason Johnson and Craig Russell faced off at a forum Monday night at the Winter Park Library, revealing some clear, if subtle, differences in their philosophies on questions such as what to do with the old library building, a proposal for Rollins College faculty apartments and the future of development in Winter Park. (Watch a recording of the event here.)

Stockton Reeves, the third candidate in the race, did not attend the forum. Carol Foglesong, the moderator from the Orange County League of Women Voters, announced Reeves was “caught out of town on his job and was not able get back  … so it’s not that he didn’t show it’s that the job got in the way for tonight.”

Jason Johnson shares a hug with his daughter after the forum.

That raised some confusion, however, because Reeves met in person on Monday with Winter Park residents involved in the Fix 426 effort at an Orlando office. He did not immediately respond to a question from the Voice about whether he was out of town during the forum, though he previously told the Voice he had a work conflict during the event that he was trying to reschedule.

Russell and Johnson, both first-time candidates for public office, showcased their knowledge and experience in the local community.

Both credited their children and families as their biggest accomplishments and appeared to agree on issues like examining how the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, a special downtown tax increment district that the current City Commission is trying to expand, could play a role in providing more affordable housing.

They also agreed that recent increases in pay for police officers have made the department more competitive in hiring.

Neither expressed a firm opinion when asked whether Winter Park should let voters decide whether to adopt single-member districts or carving the city into sections that each elect a representative to the City Commission. Russell, who is Black, nodded to the merits of diversity several times during the forum. Winter Park has not elected a Black commissioner in more than 130 years.

“There isn’t enough data for me to answer,” said Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High who also serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and as a trustee for the Winter Park Library. “If there’s true representation that kind of solves that problem.”

Craig Russell poses with students who came out to support him at the candidate forum.

Johnson, an attorney and current chairman of the city’s Board of Adjustments, said he’s “always in favor of allowing voters to decide” and noted single-member districts have positives and negatives and he would want more information.

While both candidates largely described their future vision of Winter Park as keeping the look and feel of the city much the way it is today, some differences emerged.

On the Rollins College proposal for 48 new apartments aimed at providing attainable housing for faculty closer to campus, Russell signaled a willingness to find a way to make it happen.

“How do we make it work?” Russell asked of the project on New England Avenue that has drawn complaints from neighbors about its density, architecture and potential shortage of parking. “I don’t think the immediate answer is no … Rollins historically has been a good neighbor to us and it’s an opportunity for something we haven’t done here in Winter Park and I’m very open to hear more about it.”

Johnson said he didn’t want to express a firm viewpoint, but seemed more skeptical.

“I do think there is a need for housing for faculty and staff in the city, so I understand why Rollins wants to do it,” he said. “But I also understand some of the residential concerns.”

On the matter of the old library building, which continues to pose a conundrum for city officials since the City Commission recently rejected a second round of proposals that came in to redevelop the parcel, Johnson said he opposed selling the land. A sale has been brought up multiple times to raise revenue for other projects.

A packed crowd listens to candidates for Commission Seat 2 at the Winter Park Library.

He said a sale is on the “bottom of my list of priorities,” because “it’s a gateway and it’s too valuable of an asset to sell off for a few dollars today. I wouldn’t’ support that right now.”

Later in the forum, Johnson brought up one idea that’s been discussed, which is to turn the land into a small park space.

Russell said he would “have to lean on a bunch of contacts that I have to learn more about that situation” and expressed concern about the building falling into disrepair.

When it comes to a general growth philosophy, Johnson appeared to express a bit more skepticism there, too.

“I think there’s a certain segment that would have you believe we need greater balance between residential and commercial tax bases,” he said. “I don’t know that I share that belief. I want to protect our neighborhoods from commercial encroachment, but I do think there are ways we can improve both the neighborhoods and the commercial vitality. We need to make sure our infrastructure is better improved and maintained.”

Russell said he wanted to talk to experts about the possibility of growth.

“We have to be able to open to listen to the possibility of growth,” he said. “We have to be open to listen to the experts who can tell us how can we solve this problem. I don’t know all the answers. I know where we can find the answers … I know there are generations that want to come back here and I’m open to listen to all ideas.”

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Proposals for old library building fail again

Proposals for old library building fail again

Proposals for old library building fail again

The highly visible building off Aloma Avenue will remain vacant indefinitely as the City Commission considers what to do next

Jan. 12, 2024

By Beth Kassab

For the second time in a year, a proposal to transform the old Winter Park Library building on New England and Aloma Avenues has failed because of financial concerns.

City Commissioners voted 3-1 on Thursday against moving forward with the only plan that qualified for public discussion: a concept known as SOAR that billed itself as a space and science museum and learning center. Todd Weaver cast the dissenting vote.

Commissioners expressed concerns over the financial feasibility of the plan, which proposed to rent the building from the city under a long-term lease.

The decision lands the city back at the same position it found itself in a year ago — uncertain about the future of the building left empty when the new Winter Park Library on Morse Boulevard opened at the end of 2021.

Last year commissioners ended an exclusive deal with a developer to transform the old library into co-working space that also featured a café and event space.

A few months later, the commission opted to ask for another round of proposals for the site with a potential focus on workforce housing and providing workspace to local nonprofits. Only two proposals came in after commissioners pondered out loud during summer budget hearings about whether they should just sell the building to raise revenue instead. Ultimately, only the proposal for the museum met the qualifications for public discussion.

Spokeswoman Clarissa Howard said the next steps are likely to be discussed at an upcoming Commission meeting, though a date has not yet been set.





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Library asks for more dollars as demand for services increases

Library asks for more dollars as demand for services increases

Library asks for more dollars as demand for services increases

Sunday hours and more staff and programming are immediate goals

By Beth Kassab

Winter Park Library Executive Director Melissa Schneider asked the Winter Park City Commission for more money this week in an effort to add Sunday hours and additional staff as demand for content, classes and other programs surges.

“Nationally, libraries have really struggled to get people back in the doors” in a post-pandemic world, she said, “but when we compare ourselves to our peers it’s tremendous.”

Since the new building opened in December 2021, she said, the growth in circulation of youth and family content is especially impressive. The number of active library cards has nearly doubled in the last five years and interest in programs has grown.

In 2018, the library had 42 employees, which dropped to 36 by 2022. But in that same period, average monthly visits increased from 10,548 to 13,400, representing a 15% increase through this year. Wi-Fi and computer use has more than doubled to an anticipated 120,000 sessions this year.

So far, the city’s proposed budget includes a 5% increase or about $92,000 in additional dollars. The city’s contributions are devoted entirely to personnel costs for the nonprofit library, which relies on grants and philanthropy to supplement city government support.

Schneider said the library would need a 24% increase from the city, or about $350,000, to meet the added demand for staff, services and Sunday hours. But she also proposed an alternative scenario — a 14% increase, or $200,000, which she said would still leave some gaps, but would allow some new staff, programming and hours on Sunday when more families are able to use the library.

She committed to contributing more funding from the library endowment and fundraising if the city would increase its contribution. She noted the library will turn 138 years old this year.

Anderson said the city has a small contingency for increased funding, but suggested it also may be possible to provide additional dollars from the Community Redevelopment Agency, which city leaders are hoping to expand and extend before its scheduled sunset in 2027.

Commissioners did not commit to a funding amount, but Mayor Phil Anderson said he was “blown away” by the library’s accomplishments and its ability to buck national trends. The budget won’t be finalized until next month.

At the same meeting the city approved a $230,000 study by Geosyntec Consultants to analyze stormwater management and flood prevention on the west side of the city. The study area includes the library and Lake Mendsen, the pond at MLK Park next to the library, plus areas surrounding Lake Killarney, Lake Bell, Lake Wilderness and Lake Gem. Lake Mendsen has experienced heavily increased flooding since the new library was constructed.

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City to finalize parameters for old library redevelopment

City to finalize parameters for old library redevelopment

City to finalize parameters for old library redevelopment

Commissioners are set to approve requirements for interested developers at Wednesday’s meeting

By Beth Kassab

Residential units combined with a home for arts and culture nonprofits are likely to take over the old city-owned Winter Park Library building based on a list of standards for redevelopment of the site up for consideration by the City Commission this week.

If approved, the Request for Proposal would be the second attempt in about a year by the city to solicit ideas for the building on New England Avenue that became vacant when the new Library and Events Center opened about two years ago.

Commissioners have expressed a desire to reuse the old building, but are also open to razing it if the right concept comes along.

Requirements in the draft RFP include: a maximum of four stories; preferred C-3 zoning, excluding restaurants and food halls; no residential units on the first floor; preservation of an oak tree on the property; only on-site parking; preference to arts, culture and nonprofit organizations and providing space for a traffic roundabout if one becomes needed as S.R. 426 undergoes safety changes.

The draft specifies that proposals will be scored on a variety of factors including financial benefit to the city through a “strong lease payment,” noting the city does not intend to contribute dollars to construction. The amount of community support built into each proposal as well as those submitted by businesses or organizations with a valid city business certificate and physical address in the city for at least one year can help provide proposals an edge, based on the draft scoring matrix.

At least six nonprofits, including the Winter Park Playhouse, the History Museum and the Sidewalk Art Festival, have already expressed an interest in securing space in the building.

Earlier this month, commissioners rejected two offers of land swaps for the building, opting to keep the building as a public asset in keeping with a sentiment strongly expressed by residents at public meetings. 

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Three commissioners want to buy Bank of the Ozarks property for park space

Three commissioners want to buy Bank of the Ozarks property for park space

Three commissioners want to buy Bank of the Ozarks property for park space

The purchase discussion came up as most commissioners said they opposed an offer to swap the property for the old library

By Beth Kassab

Winter Park Commissioners appeared to reject two different land swap proposals for the old Winter Park library building this week, saying they preferred to keep control of the building as a gateway to the city. They opted instead to attempt to purchase the Bank of the Ozarks property offered in one of the potential swaps.

Commissioners Sheila DeCiccio, Todd Weaver and Marty Sullivan said they were in favor of authorizing City Manager Randy Knight to offer $6 million for the property at 1100 N. Orange Avenue, just across Denning Drive from the future site of Seven Oaks Park.

“If we don’t purchase the property we will forever regret it,” DeCiccio said, noting that a multi-story bank building on the Ozarks land would be “out of character” with the neighborhood.

The purchase amount would potentially include $5 million in city bonds and $1 million from other sources.

Mayor Phil Anderson and Commissioner Kris Cruzada expressed concerns about taking on more debt in what is expected to be a lean budget year.

“I’ll count myself into the minority who questions whether a $350,000 per year debt service bill will fit into the next budget,” Anderson said, adding that amount could cover between two and four firefighters or police officers.

Commissioners are set to begin next year’s budget discussions in July.

“By all accounts we are headed into a recession,” Cruzada said. “I like the idea of purchasing it eventually. I just don’t think it’s appropriate at this time given the tight constraints on our budget.”

For now, though, the majority of the elected board asked Knight to pursue the potential purchase as well as to finalize a Request for Proposal to develop the old library site.

The details of what commissioners are looking for on the library site are likely to be approved at the next meeting on June 28.

Public comments at a special meeting about the old library land development earlier this week and those heard at Wednesday’s Commission meeting trended against the city selling the land.

“I have not heard a lot of favorable comments to dispose of the library property,” Sullivan said.

In recent months, commissioners have expressed a desire to favor nonprofit or arts-centered groups for the old building as well as potential residential units. So far, six nonprofits have expressed interest in the old library.

Heather Alexander, executive director of the Winter Park Playhouse, said Wednesday she is still interested in the possibility of the theater finding a home there. But the city is still exploring whether it could save the playhouse, which is losing its lease, by also purchasing the building it currently occupies.

If the city pursues the playhouse building as well as the Bank of the Ozarks land, that would make two properties snapped up by commissioners in the North Orange Avenue area where Seven Oaks Park construction is underway. The bank property would allow the park to expand and provide more greenspace in the midst of an increasingly dense urban corridor.


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