Fix Manitou’s library now, Part 5: The moral case

*Note: This essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on December 6, 2018. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Morality can pass harsh judgments. Praise or blame? Favor or shame? Disgrace or fame? The line between the good and the bad is often in the mind of the beholder.

Yet sadly, on the library issue, there’s only one view. Manitou Springs is failing our fellow citizens, our library’s generous original benefactor, and dishonoring our own publicly-stated values.

Our library is not accessible for citizens with disabilities or large enough for the community’s needs, a fact plain for all to see. Yet somehow, when the mayor and city council considered plans to right these wrongs, at a meeting on February 7, 2017, there was one dissenting voice.

According to the meeting’s minutes, an individual “questioned the magnitude of the project, noting that the library as-is had served the community well for over 120 years.”

There isn’t a single accurate fact or claim in that statement. (Even the library’s age was wrong. Its doors opened on February 22, 1911, so the library was actually 105 on that day.)

First, as to the “magnitude” of the planned project: the architectural plan is to roughly double the library from about 2,600 existing square feet to a little over 5,800 square feet.

That may sound big, but it’s not. Just look to local comparisons. Up the road in Woodland Park, their library is 42,000 square feet. Tiny Florissant has a library of 7,600 square feet, and Salida, which started out with a similarly-sized, Carnegie-funded library, has since expanded to over 11,000 square feet, and is in the process of further expansion. The Manitou library’s planned growth is reasonable, appropriate, and, if anything, conservative.

On to whether the “library as-is has served the community well.”

Really? What about the members of the community with physical difficulties? Consider the confluence of three figures: in 2015, El Paso County estimated there were 66,000 residents with disabilities. Additionally, pre-estimates for the 2020 Census suggest that 20 percent of Manitou’s residents are older than age 65, and the Census has previously estimated that 19 percent of Americans live with disability.

Logic suggests a significant portion of the people of Manitou Springs cannot access their library. A more honest assessment would be that the current library has served “most” of Manitou as “best it can.”

We’re also letting down the building’s benefactor: Mr. Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish-born steel baron and serial philanthropist gave some $6,500 of the $7,500 required to build the library.

Manitou was technically too small to meet the population requirement for the grant, yet, owing to expected growth and likely tourist visitors, Carnegie was persuaded to invest in Manitou Springs.

Carnegie required the community commit to several conditions. His vision was a true partnership, not an outright gift. He provided the capital and the community would provide care and continued investment. That’s why Manitou’s library says “PUBLIC” on the front, and not “CARNEGIE,” as was envisioned in the local architect’s original rendering.

At the deal’s very core—the agreement’s beating heart—was the specification that the library would always provide free service to all.

Beyond the clauses of contract law, this century-old pact is a bond between the people of Manitou Springs and our library’s benefactor. And we’re failing Mr. Carnegie by not living up to that promise.

What’s worse, we’re failing ourselves. We’re not living up to our announced values that proclaim on every piece of city paper that“the City of Manitou Springs does not discriminate on the basis of disability.”

Now, a rebuttal might suggest the library expansion is too great a financial burden for the city. But it’s no longer viable to make this claim when Manitou is literally the only community in the region that has not solved this problem.

That’s why, at that February 7, 2017 meeting, the mayor and city council unanimously approved plans for the library’s expansion. Perhaps they remembered former Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s “moral test” of government: “how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

That’s the right first step in fixing the wrong that’s been done to our fellow citizens, Mr. Carnegie, and ourselves. All that remains is to see it through to completion.

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