Despite the onset of the Great Recession and the plummeting revenues in the city coffers, 69 percent of the voters approved a bond that would renovate the Downtown Library, upgrade and expand the Main Library and completely rebuild the city's largest branch, the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center.
But for those who spearheaded the passage of Measure N, the celebration didn't last long. While the city now had the funds to construct the buildings themselves, state law prohibits using the bond funds on things like books, furniture and electronic resources. Thus, for leading Measure N proponents such as Alison Cormack and Susie Thom, the end of the bond campaign swiftly transitioned into the beginning of a fundraising campaign to pay for library equipment.
Both now serve on the board of directors for the Palo Alto Library Foundation, a nonprofit group whose mission is "to spearhead fundraising campaigns to support a modern, dynamic library system that meets the needs of everyone in our city." When the city reopened the newly renovated Downtown Library in July 2011, it was the foundation that contributed $275,000 to furnish the renovated branch. The branch's new equipment ranges from the smart board in the new community room and the wheeled, "gondola" shelves spread out throughout the main circulation room to the plushy doughnut-shaped seats in the children's area. Then there are the books — both the traditional and the electronic kind.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Bern Beecham, who serves as president of the organization's board of directors, joined the fundraising effort at around the time Measure N passed. It was the energy and the commitment of the volunteers that encouraged him to get involved, Beecham said. He also recognized that the new libraries wouldn't do much good if they weren't equipped.
"In addition to the money that the community voted to contribute by passing the bond measure, we absolutely have to provide funds to outfit the libraries," Beecham said.
Since Measure N's passage, the foundation had reached out to just about every Palo Altan, soliciting funds from corporate donors and individual residents. The results have been fruitful. The group has already received $3.8 million in donations, Beecham said. This includes $50,000, distributed over three years, from the Weekly Holiday Fund, which raises money to support local nonprofits that serve children, families and individuals. This year, the foundation received $17,500 from the Holiday Fund.
The foundation in many ways epitomizes the types of public-private partnerships Palo Alto officials tout as the way of the future. After making its contribution for the Downtown Library in 2010, the foundation upped the stakes in 2011 when Beecham presented the City Council with a $1.9 million check to furnish the soon-to-be-rebuilt Mitchell Park library, the most ambitious project in the voter-approved bond. The check, Beecham told the council, represents the contributions of more than 800 people in the community. The donation was the largest the city has ever received from a nonprofit group.
The contribution provided a welcome boost for a City Council struggling to balance the budget. Councilwoman Gail Price called it "really a wonderful moment" for the city and said she "can't express deeply enough" her gratitude to the foundation and the many contributors. Her colleagues, including then-Mayor Sid Espinosa, agreed wholeheartedly.
"I don't think it's just rhetoric to say that this is a historic moment in Palo Alto's history to have a coalition of citizens come together and say that 'One of our Palo Alto resources is important enough that we're going to donate to the tune of $1.9 million to this city for our libraries,'" Espinosa said at the Dec. 19 council meeting. "It truly is extraordinary."
While the finish line is now in sight, the group isn't ready to rest yet, Beecham said. The final stretch of a fundraising campaign is typically the toughest, Beecham said, and there's much work to be done. The city will soon break ground on the third bond-funded library project — the expansion and renovation of the Main Library. The remainder of the group's fundraising effort will be devoted to getting the Newell Road facility furnished.
"Being close is not being done," Beecham said. "We are determined to fund what we believe is necessary, and it's still going to require a community effort."
More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, including how to donate, can be found on page 2 of this edition.