At library ribbon-cutting, Fenty celebrates accomplishment

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 10:49 PM

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty officially opened the renovated Georgetown Library on Monday, helping to cement a legacy that includes the largest expansion and upgrade of the District networks of libraries in the city's history.

Fenty, joined by his presumptive successor, Vincent C. Gray (D), and schoolchildren, cut the ribbon on a newly refurbished $18 million facility that includes public-access computers, an outdoor reading terrace, slate floors and a renovated space for the historic Peabody collection of books and artifacts on the District's history.

"This has been my entire term in coming," Fenty said. "We are finally here."

The ribbon-cutting begins what will likely turn into a farewell tour for Fenty as he prepares to leave office in January after being defeated by Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

Since Fenty took office, the city has opened new or refurbished libraries in Takoma, Shaw, Deanwood, Anacostia and the Parklands-Turner neighborhood and on Benning Road NE. By the end of the next year, new or refurbished libraries are slated to open in Tenleytown, Washington Highlands, Petworth, Mount Pleasant and on 36th Place SE.

Many of the projects originated under former mayor Anthony Williams (D) as part of a capital construction project he launched in 2005. But advocates say Fenty deserves credit for pushing the projects through to completion, despite a weak economy that drained city revenues.

"There is probably no other city that has done so much in such a short period of time," said John Hill, president of the District of Columbia Public Library Board. "It's not just about the edifice. It's the quality of the services and technology."

Before he and Gray cut the ribbon, Fenty seemed a bit nostalgic. He noted that it was the last time he would attend an official library opening as mayor.

"You can never open too many libraries," Fenty said in an interview. "I just like to get things done, and this is just the latest example."

But Fenty's push to build shiny new neighborhood amenities contributed to his political downfall in the primary.

During his campaign against Gray, Fenty was unable to shake allegations of cronyism and corruption for steering contracts to build recreation centers to a company run by one of his fraternity brothers. And Fenty's efforts to quickly push for the reconstruction of the Georgetown Library after it was damaged by a fire in 2007 opened him up to charges that he favored voters in wealthy, predominately white neighborhoods over more economically depressed areas of the city.

Still, now that the political season is winding down, Fenty's efforts are eliciting renewed respect from residents, advocates and politicians.

"I don't think the campaign focused on the kinds of services that were important to the citizens," said Richard Huffine, president of Friends of the Mount Pleasant Library.

"The reality is, the mayor did a lot to keep public services open," Huffine said. "He opened new recreation centers and new libraries, and he was very supportive of citizen life."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who supported the incumbent in the primary, said that in a few years, "people will look back to see Fenty was very successful for this city."

"All this stuff happened on his watch," Evans said. "Mayor Williams clearly started looking at it, but Adrian really kicked it into high gear."

When the fire broke out at the Georgetown Library on April 30, 2007 - the same day that the 134-year-old Eastern Market nearly burned to the ground - Fenty immediately pledged that he and the council would find money to rebuild both historic structures.

"Today, we stand before a building that is a testament to their leadership," said Ginnie Cooper, the city's chief librarian, who is well-respected for her efforts to improve the quality of the city's 25 libraries.

Since Cooper took over in 2006, before Fenty was mayor, the number of books, DVDs and other materials checked out of city libraries has increased 126 percent, officials said. And many of the recently completed libraries contain amenities that would make some suburbanites envious.

The Walter T. Daniel Shaw Library, which opened in August, has 32 public-access computers, including eight Apple machines, as well as 40,000 books, CDs and other materials.

But despite all the new buildings and programming, the city's library system has been hampered by budget cuts. Since 2006, the system has lost a fifth of its staff to layoffs and attrition, including the elimination last summer of all part-time librarian positions.

With the city facing a multi-year budget shortfall that Gray predicts could reach $400 million, advocates worry that the library system cannot absorb more cuts. In recent weeks, advocates have been showing up at Gray's campaign events to urge him to consider tax increases instead of further cuts.

Fenty, however, remains optimistic that the modern-day library system he helped create will continue to flourish.

"Hopefully, there will never be another period where we go years, and decades, without libraries being renovated in D.C.," he said.

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