Excitement was building last spring after years of waiting for the new library branch to open in the Gilead-Bloomfield recreation complex on Rocky Creek Road.
Since 2016, Middle Georgia Regional Library executive director Jennifer Lautzenheiser would drop by the old Gilead Christian Academy to check progress nearly every three months.
“April 7 was the big opening and all that, and then COVID happened and it really felt like we were cursed,” Lautzenheiser said Friday, in her first visit to the branch since it unceremoniously opened Nov. 2 – the day the county reopened recreations centers that closed due to the pandemic.
A small sign staked in the ground near busy Rocky Creek Road is the only clue that volumes of books await inside the golden brick building. Bibb County bought the old school in 2013 from Gilead Baptist Church for $650,000 in SPLOST funds.
Before consolidation, the master plan was to create a cultural arts center and STEM educational facility in the old church and school buildings. The county later realized it would cost too much to save the old church, which was torn down.
When the city and county merged, the combined government approved a plan to join the 19-acre school complex with the adjoining 73-acre Bloomfield Recreation Center off Lions Place.
In addition to the new library, the recreation center offers a new fitness center, morning meditation classes, wellness and nutrition, dance fitness programs, financial workshops on Fridays and a Holiday STEM workshop every fourth Tuesday.
Recreation center director William Pollard believes the library addition with its computer lab will be a tremendous boost for the community.
“People will be able to open themselves up completely here,” Pollard said. “We’re already talking about doing some things together – Books and Jazz, our young people coming out and maybe some poetry competitions.”
As a young book lover growing up in Pleasant Hill, Pollard frequented all local libraries, including the branch on Rocky Creek Road that closed in the 1990s when Lanford Library opened on Houston Road.
For decades, the Bloomfield area was underserved as there were obstacles for many residents to get to the new Lanford library.
“Libraries, community centers are opportunities for people to grow and you get a chance to interact with us and we can give you info. Guess what happens? When you leave us, you will have grown and that’s alright,” Pollard said.
There are only a handful of these joint library facilities in the state and it’s the first one for the Middle Georgia region.
When the West Bibb Library closed a couple of years ago on Thomaston Road, it was costing about $280,000 a year to operate in that commercial space. The cost of running the Bloomfield Library is only about $80,000 a year, Lautzenheiser said.
“It’s really good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “It’s a smaller collection and it’s more focused on tech and accessibility of digital resources but still meets the same needs so we’re really excited about that.”
There might not be as many books as in larger libraries but it meets all the state requirements to be a sanctioned public library. Other materials can be accessed through the PINES borderless library system that links all the state’s branches.
Branch manager Kevin Bryant has had years to fine tune the collection to fit the south Macon community.
“We have really focused very hard upon non-fiction for children and teens,” Bryant said. “Things like working toward college, things for technology. We’ll have a 3-D printer here. Done a lot of printing books and coding and how to teach children how to code.”
Business has been slow, but he expects that to pick up once word spreads that the library is open.
During construction, Bryant was stationed at that facility while delivering summer reading materials, so a relationship with neighbors has already been established.
“I’ve been called the ‘library guy,’” he said.
Another major difference at the new branch is the hours – 11 a.m to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday right now, but will switch to Tuesday through Saturday once the coronavirus wanes.
Lautzenheiser said the shift from standard library hours is to take advantage of peak times for recreation.
“To make it easier for families to meet as a group,” she said. “So if your kids have baseball practice or a baseball game or something like that, the library will be open to be able to serve the whole family or maybe keep siblings busy and happy, or whatever, during that time period.”
While COVID-19 continues to mandate social distancing, some Macon-Bibb County libraries like Bloomfield will be offering Chromebooks to check out for two hours at a time.
Unlike the wired computer stations, patrons can access a Chromebook and take it to a spot on campus to conduct private business such as telemedicine visits on the public Wi-Fi.
Due to COVID-19, the Georgia Public Library Service granted two dozen Chromebooks and licensing to the Middle Georgia Regional Library to allow for greater social distancing at the smaller branches like Shurling and Riverside. The devices will remain at those libraries after the pandemic.
“You can take them to the parking lot, anyplace the Wi-Fi transmits,” Lautzenheiser sayd. “It was important to us that people were not required to keep them inside the facility because we know that one of the things that has been a significant challenge for community members right now is this move to telemedicine if you don’t have devices.”
The portable computers will help break barriers to modern medical care, she said.
Along the library wall, is an internet café of sorts that will allow those who have devices to charge them and use the free Wi-Fi once social distancing is relaxed. The computer lab also won’t be functional until patrons can be in closer proximity.
Bryant will be teaching future computer classes as he did at the Washington branch and teaming up with the rec center staff for STEM events.
Lautzenheiser is thankful the pandemic gave them the opportunity for a soft opening to make sure everything is functioning properly, but the staff is anxious to get up to full speed.
“I’m ready to get patrons in here to see what they want and what they don’t want,” Bryant said. “We’re just excited to grow our patrons and have everybody engaged.”
Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]