citybeat (2007-14)

A new attempt to build a central library gathers steam

Oak Ridge firm could lead the way to a whole new level of automotive efficiency

Wednesday, March 28

Let's Build It, Already

After a couple of decades of anticipating a much-needed new central library--and after a low-tax revolt stalled an anticipated library-construction effort three years ago--a new foundation is attempting to marshal private forces to help push the idea along.

Officially christened with 501(c)(3) status just last Friday, the Knox County Library Foundation will have as its chief goal the construction of a new library to replace the ca. 1971 Lawson McGhee Library on Church Avenue downtown.

While mostly in good shape as a building, it was built to accommodate a much-smaller population with very different technological needs. Many books and other materials ordinarily available to patrons have had to be placed in basement storage; at high-demand times, it's not unusual for patrons to be unable to find a place to sit.

Frustrated with the slowness of the county to act--partly in response to county voters who seemed skeptical about paying for a new library, at least via a wheel tax--several private agencies have stepped forward offering to help foot the bill.

"What they did not have was a non-profit foundation. That's the driving idea behind it," says Ginna Mashburn. A retired English teacher, Mashburn is president of the Friends of the Library, a more modest charity that raises about $50,000 a year for library programs, mainly through its book sales. She's chair of the steering committee for the Knox County Library Foundation, and though she declines to discuss numbers, its goal would have to be in the tens of millions. "Friends is a non-specific group, and doesn't have an interest in being that fundraising arm, not on a scale of several million," she says.

As a model, they're looking south--the much-admired Blount County Library in Maryville was built a few years ago through a public-private partnership directed by a similar foundation. "They were very helpful to us in getting ours started," says Mashburn.

Their board will be composed of 10-20 directors, including two from Friends of the Library, currently Mashburn and architect Jeff Johnson; one from an ancient group of library boosters dominated by descendents of Lawson McGhee's original founders called the Old Library Board, represented here by Ginger Browning; one from the current Knox County Library Board of Advisors, currently Steve Roberts. In addition, several other individuals have been recruited to help,   including longtime library supporter and Webb School co-founder Julie Webb, attorney Caesar Stair, UT anthropologist Jeff Chapman, community leader Ann Ince, attorney Dennis McCarthy, and former UT librarian Felicia Hoehne. Former UT Chancellor Bill Snyder and former UT president Joe Johnson have also expressed their support for the effort, and offered advice.

Snyder is also organist at the Tennessee Theatre and helped lead that landmark's vigorous renovation/expansion earlier in the decade. Mashburn brings up the Tennessee as a surprising example of the kind of diverse fundraising that can make it work. "It'll be similar to the Tennessee," she says: "Nickels and dimes from schoolkids, lots of matching grants--and humor, a lighter touch."

Mashburn says she hopes to partner with the East Tennessee Foundation as a sponsoring foundation. She also mentions the likely inclusion of a "children's creativity center," a sort of interactive museum similar to those seen in some other cities.

For most of its history, the library was a city-funded project. For over 30 years, all library construction has been on the county budget. Some have grumbled over the years that that countywide habit of serving constituents where they live has led to building an extraordinary number of branches across the county, almost 20 of them, which are geographically convenient to constituents but which have also, at times, stretched the budget to the vanishing point. Recently, the county taxpayer's traditional skepticism of new centralized projects has hindered progress on a new main library.

It's been suggested that the city may get back into the library business, at least as a partner with building a new central library downtown, in part because of its likely benefits to other city projects, including downtown businesses.

"Our single biggest message is how crucial a strong central library is to the branch system," Mashburn says. "The only way these branches will stay alive is if they have a strong center." Though the function of libraries has changed over the years, even the Internet is more accessible via the library than it is in most homes, by users with limited means to pay for subscriber-only services. "And there's always going to be a need for print materials," says Mashburn. "Always." Much information is still available only in print.

But she also sees the function of a central library more expansively, to be a "third place" after work and home, where "children, young adults, and old people" can go to relax, research or attend library programs.  

Though many look toward the old News Sentinel space, now a grassy slope along Church between State and Gay, as a likely prospect, no specific plans are announced. Mashburn does say she expects the new library to be different from the current one in that it will be in a mixed-use building, probably with residential and retail under the same roof. In that way, it will be similar to the original Lawson McGhee Library of 1885, still standing on Gay Street near Summit Hill; it was originally on the second floor--above a street-level business rented to help support the library.

A Legacy to be Proud of

Some long-forgotten schematics in Barton Watkins' family archives have birthed a technology that, come to fruition, may provide for a quantum leap in combustion engine efficiency.

Dubbed the Legacy Project, in honor of Watkins' late grandfather, Ernest Watkins, the idea was sparked 21 years ago while Barton was leafing through some of his grandfather's notes. Ernest was a mechanical engineer and a superintendent of machine shops at Oak Ridge Department of Energy outpost Y-12, and he left behind an impressive catalog of would-be inventions and technical concepts, many of which never saw the light of day.

"I was going through some of grandfather's old papers, and I saw this old technicolor drawing and became absolutely fascinated with it," Watkins says. "It was a wonderful idea that he never pursued, something he conceived in his spare time once when he was laid up sick."

Currently a second-generation prototype, the Legacy is still a few years from practical application. But to get an idea of how clean and efficient the diesel-burning engine would be, consider that the Legacy engine in its present conception would be able to power a U.S. Army Humvee. The current Humvee engine generates 205 horsepower at 1020 lbs. The Legacy would generate 475 horsepower at an engine weight of only 350 lbs.

"If predictions hold true, this would qualify as a huge leap in engine technology, a whole new level of power and efficiency," Watkins says.

A second version of the Legacy, this one a miniature model weighing less than 20 lbs., would be sufficient to power a tractor that would ordinarily sport an engine weighing over 200 lbs.

One of the biggest keys to the Legacy's hyper-efficiency is that it relies on "rotons"--rotary-style gears--instead of traditional engine pistons, which pump vertically. "What it all means is that it takes less fuel to get more work out of the engine," Watkins says. He estimates that the rotons alone account for a 16 percent increase in fuel efficiency, without even taking into account other Legacy advantages, such as extremely light weight.

Watkins, who is credited as co-inventor of the Legacy along with Ernest Watkins and electrical engineer Larry Hendrix, has formed an elaborate partnership with several parties including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee. Watkins founded his company, Power Source Technologies Inc. in Oak Ridge, as the vehicle to develop and promote the technology.

Right now, Power Source is looking to develop the Legacy for a limited number of potential applications. Their primary goal is to market the concept to the U.S. military. Watkins says the military is planning to convert entirely to non-gasoline-burning engines by 2010, and is one of the few entities with the wherewithal to provide necessary funding.

"We're just looking at small niches; we're not trying to change the world," Watkins says. "And we're not looking to manufacture the engine, just to develop and license the technology."

But the prospects for a clean-burning engine with that kind of size and efficiency seem almost limitless. Watkins says his dream is to see the Legacy one day used in hybrid cars.

That's still many years away, however. "There are still several bugs to work out," Watkins says. "We're probably three to five years away from putting it into any kind of actual application, where we could have something sitting here running on it . "


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