Ozark-Dale County Library Moves to Union Central Mall

MICHELLE MANN

OZARK—A phase of what Ozark-Dale County Public Library Director Karen Speck and Ozark Mayor Mark Blankenship called a “long, long journey” has come to an end and a another began with the official opening of the library on Tuesday afternoon in its new location at Union Central Mall, across from City Hall here.

“From the ashes of the old rises a new chapter for the Ozark Dale County Library,” is the motto printed on the T-shirts worn by library supporters at the ceremony. “It’s a fresh start for us,” Speck said.

“It’s been a long journey to the grand opening today,” said Blankenship, who served as Dale County Commission chairman when the question of a new library arose.

Blankenship said the library board had approached the commission asking for financial assistance for a new library that the library board said would cost about $4 million. What to do with the aging building on St. James Street had been a topic of discussion for more than a decade, he said.

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Blankenship said he told the council that if the council could find an existing building to renovate instead, he would donate his building skills to the project. “I told them that if they could find a building that could be renovated, I would volunteer my time and oversee its construction,” he said.

Blankenship knew that the city-owned Union Central mall, formerly known as Ozark Square, was virtually deserted and suggested moving into a building there as a solution.

No real action was taken on the suggestion until Blankenship became mayor in 2020. After years of talk and talk about rising costs that could not be met by fundraising alone, the council municipal has agreed to donate the old EMS building, used primarily for storage, and the old Family Dollar Store to the Ozark Dale County Library. “We changed the floor plan the council had when they originally wanted to build a new facility,” he said.

Blankenship thanked construction and procurement contractors who gave discounts to the project. “We never could have done this building for the $350,000 it cost without them.” Blankenship also thanked Troy Fountain of the Wiregrass Foundation, John Watson of the John Watson Foundation, Burton Crenshaw of the Alabama Community Foundation, and Jack Cumbie for his “incredibly generous donation.”

Built in the 1950s, the library had multiple age-related issues that had accumulated. In 2016, Library Max, LLC was engaged to perform analysis and make recommendations on options for the old library. At the time, the consultant’s recommendation was to consider refurbishing a building. “In many cases, adaptive reuse of an existing building can be a more effective approach than building new and this was validated by the recent architectural study of the Ozark Square Shopping Centre,” he wrote in his 2016 analysis. .

At 13,032 square feet of space, the new facility is smaller than the 17,000-seat old library on Saint James Street, but much of the old library’s space was unused. The mayor acted as the general contractor on the project, and other city employees were also assigned to help with the project.

The next step was to organize a community clean-up day involving volunteer citizens and the Carroll High School sports and JROTC teams. “We saw this as an opportunity to bring the community together for a good cause,” Blankenship said. “We also wanted to spread the word about the library move and inspire people to make it a reality.”

The library board had raised funds for a new library and used monetary donations from the community to repair the roof of the new building, carry out the renovations and complete the project.

The Old Library has been located at the Saint James Street location since its inception in the 1950s, said Tina Brown Harper, daughter of former Ozark Mayor Douglas Brown, who is credited with starting of the city library. “The only thing I can tell you is that in the 1950s Douglas Brown was mayor and wanted a library built in Ozark,” said Harper, who was a child at the time. “He and Alice Doughtie went to where the library was eventually built, left the area where he thought it should be built, and drew the plans on the yellow pad.”

The new facility is the fourth library that has operated at Ozark, said administrative assistant Joni Wood, who oversees the library’s genealogy section. The first two were small libraries operating out of other buildings, including the old health department building which also housed the Red Cross.

“The library was the start of the renovation of this whole mall and was now one building away from being fully occupied,” Blankenship said. “There’s a church, the grocery store, the new indoor pickleball court and we’re in talks with someone who wants to use the last remaining building.

“I think having a more central library downtown makes it more accessible,” Blankenship said. “We just think it’s also a boost from an economic perspective.”