Main Branch Library Kicks Off $25M Renovation

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Aimee Fifarek takes hope from history a century ago, as the world recovered from the 1918 flu pandemic, as she looks forward to completing the renovation of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County’s Main Library.

Work will begin next week on the project, which is slated for completion in early 2022, said the library system’s executive director. 

The library announced plans more than a year ago to renovate Main Library, which opened as the Reuben McMillan Free Library in 1910 with financial support from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremonial groundbreaking Friday for the $25 million project was streamed on the library’s Facebook page, with only library staff, board members, representatives of the project team and reporters in attendance. 

“Although this isn’t what we had envisioned for the kickoff of such a significant project, it is time to celebrate,” said David Ritchie, president of the library board of directors.

“When we started this project over a year ago, none of us could have predicted that we would be holding the groundbreaking ceremony to mark the renovation of one of Youngstown and Mahoning County’s first libraries in the midst of a global pandemic,” Fifarek said. “But we’ve been through this arc of history before.”

Just a decade after the McMillan Free Library opened, the community and the rest of the world were recovering from a different pandemic as well as the aftermath of World War I, she recounted. 

“I take that as a hopeful sign because despite all of the tragedy of both historic events, we survived. The library survived and we came together as a community,” she said. “So my hope is that by the time this construction is done, we will be reaching that same point in our health cycle and be able to celebrate the opening and fully use the facility as it’s been planned.” 

During the pandemic, the library has been “the No. 1 place that the parents and community members look to for something for kids to do or something for Mom and Dad to read or think about because the kids have been home,” Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said.

The project is slated to begin next week with the library’s parking lot, followed by work on the building itself this fall, Fifarek said. 

Elements of the project will include an outdoor event space and flexible lawn area. The 6,000-square-foot addition to the existing building will house a new event space and culinary literacy center.

“Everybody knows how important food is to this area,” Fifarek said. “We’ll be able to celebrate the food traditions that all of our immigrant forebears have brought to our area.”   

Aimee Fifarek, executive director of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County, and Dr. David Ritchie, president of the library’s board of directors, broke ground on the $25 million renovation Friday.

Libraries rely on the ability to reconfigure as community needs change more rapidly, said Rick Ortmeyer, principal with Bostwick Design Group of Cleveland, which is lead architect on the renovation project.

“We had the opportunity to rethink the entire plan from top to bottom and find which of the new services would belong best where,” he said. The new culinary literacy center is “a really remarkable and unique program happening in few libraries but very few at this level.”

Ortmeyer says he is impressed with the library’s decision to “to essentially give a gift back to the city of an urban park” between Main Library and St. John’s Episcopal Church to the north and reconfigure the parking to the east side of the building. 

“Wick Avenue is now beautified with one less curb cut and a lot more great park space,” Ortmeyer said. 

The project also will include “some limited historic renovation,” with the restoration of the front steps on the front of the building and uncovering the skylight that was covered over in the 1950s. 

The chance to work on a Carnegie library represents “an incredible opportunity,” said Paul Hagman, owner of RBF CoLab and historic preservation architectural consultant on the project. 

“All across the country, these libraries represented a very high level of design and quality of materials,” Hagman said. “To work with any library system, particularly one that has such a beautiful gem as its main library, it’s really been kind of a dream come true.”

Because libraries serve “as keepers of information and of knowledge have such a treasure trove of documents and photos and drawings,” he said, everything that has happened to the building over the past century has been well documented. 

“The improvements that we are making here will serve our community for decades to come. We know that libraries have the ability to enrich lives, and we are proud to be making the investment in the community we serve,” Ritchie said. 

 “I’m proud to be part of this enduring legacy and to be here today to open the next chapter for this historic building, but I’m only the newest member in a long line of people who have made this project possible,” Fifarek added. “There have been many trustees, library directors, fiscal officers and administrative teams who have worked diligently to set aside funds so that we can do this project well and do it debt free.” 

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.