story by Ryan Saylor
It was just more than a month ago that Fort Smith business and civic leaders said a concept similar to North Little Rock's Arkansas Innovation Hub was needed in the area and now the Fayetteville and Fort Smith public libraries have plans to introduce one aspect of the AIH concept.
Expansion proposals for the Fayetteville and Fort Smith Public Libraries include plans for “maker spaces,” which Fort Smith Public Library Executive Director Jennifer Goodson described as "when the library provides tools and training to allow people to make or create something from imagination to production. In this space, you create, invent and learn."
At the Fort Smith library, Goodson and the library's board of directors have proposed a plan to raise Fort Smith's millage rates by two mills in order to add $2.8 million to the library's operating budget which would allow it to invest in technologies to take maker spaces from concept to reality. It would have to be approved by Fort Smith voters in an election set for Aug. 12.
"In our particular space, we've talked about a 3-D printer, a good quality video camera and software, maybe a green screen. And we've talked about VHS conversation equipment," she said. "If we're successful (with the millage vote Aug. 12), it will include talking to the public and seeing what other things are possible. The emphasis is on technology."
At the Fayetteville library, Executive Director David Johnson said the library's dream is to purchase the old Fayetteville City Hospital and develop it as a library expansion with a large maker space included, with a total price tag between $50 million and $55 million. He said the purpose in creating maker spaces is not to necessarily be a business incubator, but to provide up to date services expected of a library in the 21st century.
"I think you see a lot of that coming around in the last decade, where there's more of a movement to that kind of activity," he said. "As libraries have shifted to more of a community space to meet and congregate, activities like maker spaces have bubbled to the surface."
Johnson said the addition of maker spaces to serve age groups from young to old and socio-economic levels from rich to poor is in keeping with the demands of the community and provides equal opportunities for learning and if an individual needs the space to improve or expand offerings for his or her business — like the occasional use of a 3-D printer — then that is what the Fayetteville library is hoping to offer with the maker spaces.
"When you look at what (groups) our library serves, it transcends all economic levels. It's the great equalizer. We tear down all barriers. We try to provide the community with all the different types of resources that they say they want or that we recognize support activities here in the community."
Goodson said while the plan has not been for the library to be a business incubator on the scale of North Little Rock's Innovation Hub, she said maker spaces at libraries like Fort Smith's can fill that need until either a private sector solution comes forward or a public-private partnership comes about to provide funding and support for such an effort.
"We've not had those formal discussions, but the library has had a long history of partnerships. Whenever we have the opportunity, we try to partner with groups to broaden our resources. We'd anticipate doing that with the maker spaces, as well," she said.
In Fayetteville, Johnson said informal discussions have taken place between the library and the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce regarding the maker spaces proposed for the library campus in downtown Fayetteville and possibly housing a full business incubation center, but so far nothing formal has come from the talks.
"There's been some conversations about maybe the Chamber of Commerce or people doing that innovation, incubation space. There's been talk about having that in the library expansion. We're open to any ideas and suggestions with anyone who would be willing to work out a deal," he said. "They acknowledge what the library does is free access to the community. If we could work out something unique, I'd be willing to listen and see if we could make it work. I've had some conversations with the Chamber of Commerce about that opportunity, but it is just a high level discussion. There has been no conversation beyond, 'Hey, what do you think of this idea?'"
Even though Fort Smith is moving forward with its plans with the Aug. 12 vote, so far Johnson said the Fayetteville library has not determined what route it would take to fund the admittedly ambitious plan. He said the library building and adjoining parking deck were constructed through a three-quarters of a cent sales tax that was in place for the library for 18 months. It raised $18 million, plus the library raised private funds – with major support from Jim Blair – to supplement the sales tax. But he said the tax option is unavailable as the three-quarters of a cent sales tax is currently in use for long-term projects in the city.
"We will have to explore other options, possibly a millage increase or a capital campaign. There's been no decision yet," he said. "There's no clarity on how we're going to do that. But as soon as we do, we'll get it in front of the community to see if they want to help us. That conversation with the community is ahead of us."
Whatever option the library pursues in its attempt to make the $50 million plus expansion with a maker space a reality, he said the public will likely see more local libraries entering the maker space marketplace due to the services it can provide citizens.
Goodson said maker spaces popping up at libraries across the nation show that libraries could have more of an impact locally than just reaching people with the written word.
"The beauty of the library is that it can be an economic engine. It could allow entrepreneurs to get the hands-on training to get going, to get the spark they need to get started. But it can also be a space for people to exercise creativity. It can be economic and incubating, but it doesn't have to be. And that's the nice thing about the public library. It meets as many of those needs as possible."