CAPE MAY – Once abandoned and in disrepair, the former Franklin Street School near the center of Cape May could be the site of a $6 million new branch of the Cape May County Library System, under a proposal unveiled at a packed town hall meeting May 1.

Hundreds gathered at the beachfront Convention Hall to hear about the plans.

Mayor Chuck Lear said the city’s current library branch is too small. In searching for a potential location for a new building, he and others considered the former school. The city owns the building, on which the Center for Community Arts (CCA) has held a long-term lease since the 1990s. The organization has spent decades working to restore the building. Built in 1927, the building served as the school for black children during segregation. It served that purpose until New Jersey ended segregation in 1949, and the building has not been used consistently for any purpose since then, Lear said.

The building does not represent Cape May’s proudest moment, he said.

“Let me be clear: Saving this building emphatically does not mean we are celebrating the original purpose of the Franklin Street School,” he said. “We are not preserving a segregated school. We are preserving a legacy, a part of the rich African American heritage in the city of Cape May.”

As proposed, the renovation would mean a massive expansion for the Cape May library branch.

The current library at 110 Ocean St. once served as a telephone company building. In 2010, the building underwent extensive renovations, including a new roof, but since then that work has been far outstripped by large-scale county library projects in other communities. In Wildwood Crest and Stone Harbor, millions of dollars were spent on elaborate new facilities, which include spaces for yoga and cooking classes, technology programs, meeting rooms and many, many books.

Architect Michael Calafati completed a feasibility study on using the former school, which Lear described as a necessary first step in the project.

Using the former school on Franklin Street would not save money in construction costs, Calafati told the crowd on Wednesday, but it would breathe new life into a building in the center of Cape May. It will also present more challenges, including combining the three-story former school on the street side with the gymnasium in the back.

Because of its history of segregation, there is no connection between the two building sections. In fact, the levels do not line up. Calafati proposes an 18-foot doorway be broken though with steps connecting the existing gym and the second floor of the school. He does not want to finish the area where the wall is torn through, but instead enclose the broken edges behind protective glass.

“I’d like it to be treated in such a way that it looks like rough construction,” he said. “Then it becomes a metaphor for bringing walls down. Rather than finishing it off to look like it had always been there, it would be left purposefully rough.”

An elevator would be needed in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under his plans, he said someone who relies on a wheelchair would have access to every square foot. Preliminary plans also call for an addition of a reading room off to the side.

The current library branch has about 4,000 square feet. The former school would offer more than 16,000, with the plans showing a demonstration kitchen, areas for special events and children’s programs and more. One section could be used for exercise classes.

Residents welcomed the plan, for the most part.

“I could not be more excited about what I heard tonight,” said Harry Bellangy, the president of the Greater Cape May Historical Society, which operates the historic Colonial House near the school. “We’re the neighbors and we think it’s wonderful.”

A few remained deeply skeptical through the end of the meeting, with some speakers complaining about the loss of the gymnasium at the back of the building and others saying Cape May needs a senior center more than a new library.

Resident Craig Gras said she did not want to throw cold water on the proposal, but pointed out that Cape May’s population is declining.

“This is an awfully ambitious project,” she said. “We’re not Ocean City. We don’t have the year-round population to support something like that.”

She also expressed concern about the cost.

“Somebody’s going to end up paying for this,” she said.

Calafati presented a series of sources of funding for the project, estimated at $5.96 million. They included funds from the county, the city, and a $125 million state bond funding library construction. The CCA also has $595,000 in funding from the New Jersey Historic Trust, which could only be used to preserve the historic elements of the building.

Plans call for CCA to have offices in the completed project. Several speakers said they would rather see a community center at the site, as was CCA’s plan for years. Emily Dempsey of West Cape May, who described herself as a founding mother of CCA, said a library was never part of their vision but that the group could share.

“I think we should celebrate this as a place of relationship building; a place that can unify the community, a place where the young and old can meet together,” said Harold Harris pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church. “You say a senior center. I say a community center where everybody can meet together.”

“I want to tell you, libraries are community centers. And what is being proposed here is a community center,” said Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, whose responsibilities on the freeholder board include the county library. “This is a wonderful project for a whole lot of reasons.”

She cited the numerous programs and technology offered at other county library branches, saying the project would allow Cape May’s branch to offer space for author’s talks, classes and more.

“And to read,” yelled Virginia Hessel of Cape May from the back of the room. She told Hayes that the library plan was being pushed on Cape May.

“It’s very clear here that we are being pummeled into this,” she said.

“Excuse me, these people are not under attack, madam,” said Linda Wolf, who served as the facilitator for this part of the meeting.

“If you had called on me sooner, then it would be over,” Hessel replied.

Hessel later described the Cape May City branch as the perfect library of her life “right where it is now.”

The presentation won over at least one skeptic. Claudia Von Savage said she came prepared to hate the idea, but said the plan looks great.

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said Cape May property owners are already paying the county library tax and their county taxes, suggesting they should receive the benefit of an expanded library.

After the meeting, he said the timing remains uncertain. If approvals and grants fall into place, he said, the county could go out to bid on the project in about a year and a half.

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