The first new Kern County library in 14 years, opening next weekend, is a beautiful Craftsman-style building filled with sculptures, photos and paintings hand-picked by the department director and her art committee to reflect the history, culture and natural surroundings of the 8,500-person Frazier Park community it will serve.

Funded during a better economic era, the Frazier Park Library will open at a time when there's little money for new branches.

It also opens as libraries in a long line of other communities -- many of them much larger than Frazier Park -- are struggling with aging, inadequate buildings and sharply reduced hours.

Crown jewel

One recent morning, Kern County Director of Libraries Diane Duquette laid her hand softly on the large, bronze statue of a stylized eagle that anchors the entryway of the new library and pushed, spinning it elegantly on its base.

The statue, which she said the county bought for $23,000 to $25,000 early in the design process, sits in a pool of light in the small rotunda just inside the heavy stained-glass main doors of the building.

"The county bought some of the major works of art way back when the economy was good," she said.

The tall rotunda, with patterned windows that duplicate the oak tree pattern of the doors, was designed specifically to hold and display the statue, which is inscribed with intricate Native American motifs representing the faith of the area's Chumash tribe, Duquette said.

From there she led visitors on a tour of the new library, pointing out each painting, quilt and photo, noting the artists -- local, regional and national -- and sharing stories about how she worked with them to commission pieces or managed to collect the art at auction or through negotiation with owners.

"I can do some great things with art. I've got an eye for it. I've developed an eye for it," she said.

In the community meeting room, Duquette showed off the audio-visual system, dual window shades and full kitchen, one of two in the building.

She pointed out the nature paintings by local youth hanging in the children's room, invited guests to try out the comfy cushions, which look like natural rocks, and saunter through the pages of the massive storybook that serves as the entrance to the area.

The tour continued through the "Teen Scene" corner to computer rooms, private study cubicles and conference rooms -- all attractive and graced by pieces of original art.

In the main library area, Duquette pointed to fireless electric fireplaces -- with deceptively real simulated flames -- that add a warm touch to the ambiance.

Outside she showed the system of walkways, ramps and steep stairs that grant entrance to the building, most equipped with ice-melting heated water pipes that will take the edge off the slippery conditions winter can bring to the mountains.

Even the carts that will catch books and other materials dropped off in the parking lot bins are motorized to help library staff negotiate the terrain in inclement weather.

Criteria

How did Frazier Park land such a jewel?

Kern's Library Facilities Master Plan for 2020, drafted in 2002, cited the town's library as ripe for replacement because the 1,184-square-foot leased strip-mall location -- with a bathroom that also did duty as a broom closet -- could not handle a population that was then expected to double to 14,000 people between 2000 and 2020.

Duquette said that expected population boom, which did not even consider the development of the Tejon Ranch luxury community that has since been blessed by Kern County supervisors, was the deciding factor in choosing Frazier Park.

Indeed, the master plan confirms that the only category where Frazier Park ranked first in need was lack of space for the population served.

But since 2002, growth in Frazier Park has failed to live up to the projections.

Between 2002 and 2010, the population of Frazier Park grew by only 20 percent -- a respectable amount but far less than other communities in Kern County that saw growth rates in the 30 and 40 percent range.

Current estimates from the Kern Council of Governments project the Frazier Park Library service area will hit 14,000 people in 2030 -- 10 years later than earlier thought.

Tehachapi, which was the county's second choice to apply for the library grant in 2002, had a growth rate of 27 percent between 2002 and 2010 and is now more than four times the size of Frazier Park. And the Tehachapi library also is in a strip mall.

Duquette said the $17 million cost of a library in Tehachapi -- based on a plan to construct a 30,000-square-foot facility -- was prohibitive to Kern County supervisors struggling with the economic downturn born out of the tech stock market collapse.

"I wanted to do two (new libraries)," said Duquette, who has overseen the construction of six new libraries since taking the job in 1987. "We had to go with one that would be affordable to the county."

Still, getting the Frazier Park library built was no cakewalk.

Originally projected to cost $5 million, costs crept up due to unexpected road work, costly earth-moving, delays and other expenses.

Duquette battled through the early loss of the building's first architect in 2007, which caused a delay that nearly cost the county its state bond money. She's pushed through construction delays and dealt with controversies over oak trees cut down to clear land.

So the library is opening five years later than first expected. It cost $6.3 million, of which $3.4 million came from a state library bond while the rest came from the county.

The Kern County Library Foundation chipped in $25,000 for art.

Home turf

Duquette disputed any notion Frazier Park was picked as the top priority for a library back in 2002 because of who she was and where she lives -- Pine Mountain Club.

"It has nothing to do with my living here," she said.

She argued this is how all libraries should be built.

When she retires, she said, her legacy will be that she raised the bar on how libraries should look and operate in Kern County and championed a vision of the structures as more than just homes for books.

She picked up her vision of a library at a community center and art venue, she said, when she took the director's job in Kern County in 1987, in the middle of the construction of the Beale Memorial Library in downtown Bakersfield -- the county's 128,165-square-foot main library.

"I've taken that with me with every other branch that I've done," she said.

New libraries constructed in Arvin and Lamont, with federal grant funds tailored to minority areas, were designed with those communities in mind and the art reflects where the library is, Duquette said.

In Rosamond, models of famous planes hang from the ceiling and art of machines that made history in the skies over the Mojave Desert fill the place, she said.

Frazier Park's new library, Duquette said, will be the community's heart, a neutral ground where students will come to study and the sometimes divided mountain residents can bond as a group.

Michael Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers' Association said he understands the need for a community center in the county's smaller cities.

But he questioned the need for government to provide that community center and said the bells and whistles lavished on the Frazier Park branch raise alarm bells for him.

"Is it appropriate, not just in bad times but at any time, for the county to be building such an opulent building?" he said.

The Frazier Park Library will be open four days a week. The state bond required the library be open 46 hours per week, but because of the poor economy the county was able to get the state's OK to operate four instead of five days a week, Duquette said.

Ten other county libraries that serve larger populations -- including Tehachapi and Delano, which have service areas four and six times the size of Frazier Park, respectively -- have been reduced to three days a week to absorb library budget cuts.

Other larger service areas in Wasco, Shafter and McFarland have libraries only open two days a week.

Duquette said she hopes people in those areas will come see the Frazier Park library and get "a new vision of what their (potential) new library can be."

A new bond act isn't likely for years, she said, but "we're willing to work with any group or organization in the communities clamoring for a new library."

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