Why Would a Private University Be Leased Public Library Space? Retaliation.

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Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Both Blasco Public Library employees and board members were told by Davis they could not speak about the Pride display situation. Three members of the board resigned in response. It was not long before eight library positions were then on the chopping block, alongside several other key social service jobs within county administration, in the 2024 fiscal budget. This was despite increased library usage statistics. Those positions were saved by a narrow 4-3 vote, and the county passed a near-11% property tax hike.

The story didn’t end there, though.

Now, Davis and other conservative county executives are agreeing to lease space in the Blasco Public Library to a tax-exempt private religious institution, Gannon University. The agreement allows the University to build a water research and education center in the neighborhood of 3,000 square feet in the east wing of the library’s first floor. The 25-year lease gives the space to the institution at a rate of $7 a square foot, less than half the cost of office spaces already owned by the county, which average $15 a square foot. The lease also ensures the rent won’t increase.

While few are against the project itself, its location and the terms of the agreement are.

Initially, Gannon’s research program was hoping to move into a facility owned by the Erie Western Pennsylvania Port Authority. The university could not get the lease as long as they wished to have it, though, and they began to look for alternative locations.

That’s when Davis stepped in and offered the university the library operation, according to Gannon University president Walter Iwanenko. Discussions began in June 2023–the same time Davis demanded the removal of the Pride display in the children’s section and issued a gag order of library workers and advisory board members.

The lease agreement was approved behind closed doors without public input in October.

There was no advanced notice the proposal was even on the table. It was not listed on the public agenda of the city’s finance committee prior to its approval the week before it was voted on by the full county council. At that October meeting, attendees expressed several concerns, including the fact that the library would be unable to expand into their own space for at least 25 years and that parking would be reduced. The library’s master plan, developed with taxpayer input, would utilize that space well before the ending of the inked agreement with Gannon. The private institution’s lease would impede on the public library’s growth, without ever having to give a dime of tax money itself.

The agreement also puts the library in a precarious position when it comes to funding. If library services are hindered, BPL could lose its library designation as a state library center, meaning that it could forfeit state funding.

The land on which the Blasco Public Library sits was donated to the county for the explicit purpose of a public library. Per the state’s Dedicated or Donated Property Act, the lease agreement with Gannon University would be in violation, as the Act ensures that properties held in a trust can only be used for the originally intended purpose; in this case, that’s as a library.

An attempt to recall the Gannon agreement in late April failed to garner supermajority support.

But the story isn’t over, even if the contract wasn’t overturned. This is thanks to community members and library supporters calling themselves Keep Our Library Public pushing back and making clear that this agreement is not about what’s best for Erie taxpayers. It’s about what helps support the County Executive Director and his desire to retaliate against the library.

Keep Our Library Public, a group which has been vocal in their opposition to the agreement, has now filed a lawsuit against the project. Their lawsuit names Erie County and County Executive Director Brenton Davis as defendants, arguing that Gannon agreement is not in the best interest of the public taxpayers of Erie. They’ve got both a petition and place to donate to their efforts at their website, as well as a comprehensive history of their work in defending the Blasco Public Library. What began as a small group of vocal library supporters has grown into a powerhouse pushing back against a targeted attack on a beloved institution.

Davis has a well-documented history of offensive comments, including those against the LGBTQ+ community, even prior to his nomination for the role of the county’s Executive Director in 2018. In his role, he has behaved in ways aligned with the philosophies of the far-right. He fired all of the board members of the Erie County Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity committee in 2022, prior to his demand that the Pride display in the Blasco Library be removed.

Weeks prior to pushing the Gannon contract forward, Davis agreed to give county green space to build a business park, claiming that were the public to give input on it, the project would be “stifled.” Several other spaces were available for the project, much as there are other spaces for the Gannon project.

With a history of erasure and silencing, is it any surprise that the targeting the library’s space–and, ultimately, their funding–is the next step? It’s not if you’ve been paying attention to the systematic destruction of democratic institutions nationwide.

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