Opinion: The $50 Million Miracle


Whether you are pro progress or pro preservation, pro go or pro no, let’s put our differences aside for a moment, and ponder something marvelous we can do together. Something that will benefit everyone, for ages to come. After 50 years, we finally get to steward the future of our precious learning center known as the Laguna Beach Public Library. Woohoo! We are exercising the last year of our option to acquire it from the County for a reasonable $4.3 million, the cost of a middling house here. What an opportunity! This is a civic gem, a landmark building in a landmark location. The terminus of stately Park Avenue to the east, and the cradle to quiet and shaded Lower Park Avenue to the west. It connects us to other contiguous parcels we own. And yes, it also connects us to our past and foreshadows our future and reminds us that access to learning is an immutable gift in a free society. Plus that Fairy Garden. Adorbs!

But let’s face it, right now, the area is blighted, the library is tired, with a limited collection of books, and bad fluorescent lighting. Apart from a cute, children’s corner, the only people coming are sadly those with nowhere else to go. There’s nothing for the rest of us—especially our impressionable youth. The whole thing is ripe for reimagining. The good news is, she’s coming home.

But not so fast. Because in our rush to secure the library’s future against a supposedly secret conspiracy to replace it with a parking lot, we did what anyone would in that situation; strongarm Council into proving to us such a dopey, philistine idea wasn’t the case by signing a 25-year leaseback to the County. A deal which richly rewards them with $2.8 million a year for operating our library at an annual cost of $800,000. That’s $50 million in excess of what’s needed to run it. They’ve been riding this gravy train for 50 years with little to show for it. And now we reward them with 25 more?

Yes, I understand the surplus goes to other libraries in the County network, but these are wealthy towns that have their own taxpayer bases like Aliso Viejo, Costa Mesa, Dana Point, Irvine, Laguna Niguel, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano (the justifiably deserving towns of Anaheim and Santa Ana are not in the network). Why should we be a donor city to them? We already support all their daytrippers. And we no longer need a county-wide system of physical books separated by roads when most everything is digitized and on demand. Books are sacred and tactile and we love them but they’re far from the only learning tool kids use today. Rushing to sign this deal gives us no leverage with the County to negotiate needed upgrades and modernization. They are not the visionary stewards to do this. We are.

We value education so much in this town, and now we have a once in a generation opportunity to create a modern learning center. Who wouldn’t want that? Perhaps we’ll work with what we have and restore it to its original mid-century splendor. Or expand it while remaining faithful to its bones. Can we add another story, making one of them an entire children’s library? Can we better utilize the ground floor? What about tying in Park Plaza and surrounding areas for extensions, exhibitions and shows? Is there room for a black box theatre, a media lab, a café, or, dare I say, a roof garden? What about satellite locations in North, South and East Laguna? Can we digitize all of the art, theater, and music in town and make a Laguna Beach culture archive? Anything’s possible if we claw back that $50 million.

We can learn a lot from Newport Beach. They created a stunning library of the future, independent of the County system. It’s a 71,000-square-foot complex begun in 1989 and expanded over the years, functioning as a public-private partnership. Their foundation has contributed $7 million in the last 10 years, which covers the cost of content acquisition. Their collection includes books, audiobooks, CD’s, DVD’s, eBooks, touch screen kiosks, Blu-ray films, iPads, laptops, desktops, a film and audio department—the kind of things that attract today’s kids to learning centers. Plus they have a healthy dose of community programs, a lecture series, and a café, the things that activate adults (and community) as well.

To appreciate the stark difference between the two institutions, check out the Newport library’s website, nbplf.foundation, versus ours, ocpl.org/libraries/laguna-beach. What a difference a little public involvement makes.

It’s not too late. The lease has not been signed. If we all speak up, Council can put it on the agenda again. And if the facts are fairly presented, I believe every councilmember will come around. Everyone wants a functioning, vital library, and this is our chance to get the one we deserve, a legacy for us, our future, and for the history books that haven’t been written yet, but will someday grace those shelves. Or tablets. Or metaverse.

Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected]

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  1. Yikes! I’m a bit confused how Mr. Fried arrived at the following: >A deal which richly rewards them with $2.8 million a year for operating our library at an annual cost of $800,000. That’s $50 million in excess of what’s needed to run it.< How did $800,000 deducted from $2.8 million result in $50 million dollars per year? That's an odd kind of math that I'm not familiar with. If Mr. Fried watches the library discussion of Agenda #8, he will discover that a majority of the City Council voted that the $4.2 million dollar purchase price of the library be used by the County to make improvements of our library. Laguna will not only own the land where the library is, but will get to see our money used for improvements on the library—something that those 35 residents, who wrote and testified about how they valued and used the library at its current location and 1,400 residents who signed a petition to keep the library where it is, wanted. Thanks to the City Council for acting on behalf of the residents.

  2. Deborah, let’s assume we both want the same thing: a library for the long term at the present location. Should we just sign a lease with the county for 25 years and give them $50 million in excess of what they spend to operate it, or should we pause, look at our options to radically improve the library, and decide whether we want to use some of that $50 million on ourselves instead of giving it away to neighboring cities? Can’t we all agree that would be the best outcome?


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