Branch library would be an ‘ideal’ fit in renovated Family Focus building: agency’s executive director

By Bob Seidenberg
An Evanston Public Library branch at the Family Focus building would be an “ideal” fit, complimenting the other services the agency intends to house in the building once a renovation project is completed, the head of the organization told members of the Evanston Public Library Board last week.

“It is becoming even more apparent that a library space would just be ideal as we think about the expanded opportunities for our center,” Dara Munson, the group’s President and Chief Executive Officer, told Library trustees at their May 18 meeting.
Coming out of the pandemic, “there should be a space for quiet and peace and calm,” she said, speaking of the library’s possibility, to go with “whatever critical services are provided to support mental health.”

Evanston Public Library is among the community-based organizations working with Family Focus officials to explore the future uses of the agency’s building at 2010 Dewey Ave., as part of a larger Foster Campus concept.
The Fifth Ward, where the building is located, has been without a library branch since the early 1980s.
Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons reported earlier this year she was in talks with Family Focus officials about the possibility of housing a branch library, larger in size than the 6,000 square foot library opened at the Robert Crown Community Center several years ago, if a teen space were to be included.

Munson was invited to the May 18 meeting for the agency’s view of having a the library in the building.
Family Focus is one of the city’s longest established and most respected social service organizations, dating back to mid-1970s when the organization started as a storefront providing a place for parents with young children to gather. The organization was led for many years by Delores Holmes, former 5th Ward Alderperson.

Family Focus merged with the Chicago Child Care Society (based in Hyde Park) in January 2021. As much as 50 percent of the Dewey building is currently underutilized, Munson estimated at the meeting, with a major renovation project needed “just to keep our current tenants stable.”
The building currently holds a number of services including early childhood home visiting, the Family Advocacy Center, after school, Grandparents raising Grandchildren, and community partnership initiatives such as the Foster Street Urban Agriculture program.

To fund the work, the agency has a $3 million request in with the city for federal American Recovery Plan Act funds. Family Focus has also secured a $1 million grant from the state and has another $1 million from the federal government, said Munson, who joined Family Focus after the merger with the Chicago Child Care Society.

“So were looking at rehabilitation of this building in a couple of phases,” she told trustees. “The first is much needed needed work, much needed repair, so the tenants can actually come back safely in a center that provides for the needs of staff and participants.”
Beyond that the plan is “just to continue to establish a fully redeveloped center,” wher said.

“There’s a lot of energy right now around the Family Focus Center and what it could be for the Fifth Ward, especially as as District 65 is starting construction on their new school, which is just adjacent from Family Focus,” she told trustees.
“We’ve had about a 40 year connection with the City of Evanston,” she continued. “A lot of our programs are still going strong. We have a strong team that operates services from the Family Focus side and our tenants do an an amazing job of serving the community.”
Board applies breaks to bookmobile project
Library trustees took no action on the issue. But Munson’s report did appear to have a bearing on another item agenda on the Board’s agenda, whether to move forward, hiring a consultant to hire design a book and technology mobile.
Much as in the case of satellite branches, trustees have shown interest in bookmobiles as an option to bring services to underserved areas.
The hiring of a consultant for $8,100 would be a first step in the process. The consultant would help in the process of creating a concept, request for proposal and establish a timeline, said Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons in a memo.
If approved and ordered in 2023, a book and technology mobile could be ready by 2025.
Costs could run as high as a half million. Skokie purchased one for $332,000 roughly five years ago, but that figure doesn’t include the engagement team and gas, maintenance and other costs involved in a bookmobile’s operation.
In discussion, though, several trustees referred to the possibility of a west side branch in the Family Focus building in support of holding off on approving a consultant.
A bookmobile did come up in the listening sessions the library held earlier this year to gauge community interest in services, said Tracy Fulce, Board President. “I personally don’t feel that I heard an overwhelming ‘we need a bookmobile.’ And given that a bookmobile is going to be like a half million dollars to get one and then staffing it regularly seems like an enormous expense, I would like to feel much more confident that residents want this.”
Trustee Shawn Iles said he too was “reluctant to go down this path. I think it’s clear that the Fifth Ward branch is more important…it’s more in line we want to go than the bookmobile.
“I like the bookmobile,” he said. “But I also recognize the limitations of our budget. I think a lot of Evanstonians expressed interest in the bookmobile; they’ve seen is successfully run in Skokie.”
However, he said, “Skokie has twice the budget we do per capital. And I think our staff does a lot with very little compared to some of our neighbors and I don’t feel comfortable going down path that we may or may not take.”
Trustee Benjamin Schapiro maintained that the Fifth Ward has been a real priority with the Board for many years. A two year lead time that would be needed for a bookmobile “realty tells the community, ‘well, you just have to wait a little while longer. And you’re still not going to get a 10,000 or 12,000 square foot facility. You’re going to get a 100-square foot bookmobile and you’re going to share with everybody else.”
New Library trustee Russ Shurbet expressed an alternative view.
“Most people seem to be saying is there something more immediate (than a bookmobile), yet my understanding is that we’ve been talking about the Fifth Ward (branch) for about ten years now, at least. If this, Family Focus pans out it’s another four years.”
On top of that, he referred to reports that the Fifth Ward is gentrifying, and people being pushed out. A bookmobile, something that’s mobile, I think it’s important,” in bringing services to places.”
On Schapiro’s motion, the Board voted not to move forward with the project at this time, placing the contract with the consultant on hold until such time that the Board feels it is appropriate to take up the issue.

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