Our Towns

Kusalaba Library Branch Awes Guests at Dedication

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Ray Kucalaba was impressed Saturday with the new branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County that bears his brother’s name.

As children living on the West Side, members of his family would regularly visit the West Side branch, which stood on the site of the new branch that opened Feb. 14 and was formally dedicated Saturday.

At 11,815 square feet, nearly a third larger than the building it replaces, the branch features books and other conventional materials as well as a maker space that includes a 3-D printer, button maker, laser engraver and recording studio. It also serves as the base for the system’s Pop-Up Library service.

“I’m amazed. This is not your grandfather’s library,” Kucalaba said.

The new Michael Kusalaba Library, 2815 Mahoning Ave., is named for the late Michael Kusalaba, an executive with Ohio Edison-First Energy. He amassed wealth as a “hobbyist investor,” as his brother put it. “And he was good at it,” he said.

Kusalaba – who changed the spelling of his last name – established a fund at the Youngstown Foundation that is directed by Kucalaba, of Berlin Township, and their sister, Mary Ann Huwig, of Alliance. The fund donated $1.68 million to support construction of the new library, which cost $3.78 million.

“He wanted his bequest to go to the Mahoning Valley. He didn’t want his bequest to go all over the country,” Kucalaba remarked.

“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t imagine it would be this nice,” Huwig offered.

Since its opening, the Kusalaba library has logged more than 3,500 visits, including 717 during its first day, said Aimee Fifarek, library executive director. The library has seen strong bookings for its community room, traffic from students at nearby McGuffey Elementary School, and patrons getting library cards, checking out materials and using the maker space.

“So much research and planning goes into the decision to build a new library, but you never know if you’ve made the right decision until the library opens to the community,” Fifarek said at the dedication ceremony.

“We’ve been gratified to see a lot of small kids, and the Imagination space has been getting very good use as well.”

“Over the years, we have seen that this community truly loves its library,” said David Ritchie, president of the library’s board of trustees. Development of the branch was shaped by community meetings and input received from residents of the area as the board weighed whether to renovate or build new.

“It has all led us to this moment when we are celebrating this new library,” he said.

Deborah Liptak, library development director, recalled meeting with Kusalaba before his death. “He asked me to tell him about the library’s strategic plan and all the great possibilities,” she said.

“I know in my heart today that he has to be looking down on us and saying, ‘Awesome – well done,’” she remarked. “What a wonderful legacy for this new community library.”

In addition to Kusalaba’s family, Fifarek expressed her appreciation to donors including the Slanina family and Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association. She also thanked the contractors on the project, the library’s board and staff, and the branch’s stakeholder committee.

Kusalaba, who lived near the library and walked to it nearly every day, wished to “create a legacy that expressed his passion for the Youngstown area, and what a wonderful legacy he left us,” Fifarek said.

The library director also acknowledged her predecessor, Heidi Daniel, who launched the Kusalaba project. Daniel, who left last year to become president and CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, was unable to attend due to personal and professional commitments.

“She very much wanted to be here to share this moment with all of you,” she said.

“When I think about libraries I think about education and how it gives you an opportunity to travel far beyond where you can travel any other time,” Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said.

The mayor offered a quote from author Anne Herbert regarding the importance of libraries: “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries,” he said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Mike Ray characterized the library branch as a “cornerstone” of the community.

“This is something on our major corridor that’s going to mean growth,” he said. He cited the “major facelift” at St. John Lutheran Church and the new ownership and planned $200,000 investment at the bowling alley on Mahoning Avenue nearby.

The councilman also praised Daniel for her role in the project. “It was her vision and her leadership that helped us get here,” he said.

Debora Flora, a member of the stakeholder committee, expressed her appreciation for both Kusalaba’s gift and the library.

“This is fantastic,” she remarked. “There was a time when we wondered whether the library was going to remain here at Mahoning and Schenley [avenues], and I was part of a discussion group that was trying to work its way through that issue.

“It seemed like the library was going to have to relocate because of the condition of the former building, and along came Mr. Kusalaba and his generous, generous gift,” she continued. “To be standing here today and to see my son with one of the new computers, and to have a renewed sense of pride in the library and in this neighborhood, I feel great about it.”

Pictured at top: In the foreground, from left, are Ron Faniro, Ray Kucalaba, Mary Ann Huwig, Aimee Fifarek, David Ritchie, Judy Schmutz and Stuart Gibbs.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.