Cape May, NJ

Former Cape May Mayor and Deputy Mayor Honored as New Jersey Library Champions

John Cooke

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2021 recipients of a NJLA Library Champion Award (l to r) Cape May County Commissioner E. Marie Hayes, Center for Community Arts Executive DCookecapemay.com

Officials who led efforts to preserve, renovate and expand Cape May City’s once-segregated Franklin Street School into a library and new community center will be recognized June 2 by the New Jersey Library Association.

Former Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear, former Deputy Mayor Patricia Hendricks, Cape May County Commissioner E. Marie Hayes and David Mackenzie, executive director of the Center for Community Arts (CCA), are Library Champions of the Year. The award recognizes community advocacy on behalf of libraries.

They spearheaded a countywide coalition that resulted in the nearly $7 million project being funded, in significant measure, by a recent grant from the State Library Construction Bond Act.

The Cape May County Commissioners, the Cape May County Library Commission, and the City of Cape May are collaborating with each contributing one-third of the remaining $3.4 million library construction. Additional resources include a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service and the balance of a CCA grant from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office.

The new library and community center will be housed in the Franklin Street School and adjoining gymnasium. It is an integral part of the community’s commitment to preserve the city’s rich African-American heritage.

The Franklin Street School (FSS) was built as the elementary school for African-American children in Cape May and served in this way from 1927-47 when New Jersey desegrated its schools. The building was then in decline for a long period of time. More than twenty years ago the CCA, a group of local citizens, dedicated to cultivating the arts for school children and preserving local African-American history, began an effort to renovate the building to serve as an arts and community center. CCA received grants from NJ historic preservation groups and private citizens that helped stabilize the building. While progress was made, a much more extensive effort was needed.

Commissioner Hayes and Mayor Lear stood in the school building in 2017 and had the vision that it could be renovated and expanded as the city’s branch of the Cape May County Library. Both began a crusade to get the community to share their vision. The Cape May County Commissioners, led by Chairman Gerald Thornton, and the Cape May County Library Commission saw the value of such an effort. A feasibility study for the effectiveness of the FSS as a library was conducted in 2018 with costs shared by the County Commissioners, the County Library Commission, and Cape May City.

Strong advocacy efforts helped build support for the transformation of the Franklin Street School into a new library, a 16,000-square-foot facility compared with the present 4,200-square-foot Cape May City Branch of the county library. Mayor Lear and Deputy Mayor Patricia Hendricks and CCA Director David Mackenzie promoted City support for the project. Commissioner Hayes built support at the county level in her role as liaison to the county Library Commission. Andrea Orsini, county library director, was also a major catalyst in the progress of the Franklin Street School project.

Key public presentations on the proposed project were made, including a May 2019 City Town Hall meeting attended by an estimated 250 people. The majority of citizens spoke in favor of the project. At a critical Cape May City Council meeting, local citizens packed the City Hall auditorium to voice their enthusiastic support for the new library and community center. Important factors in moving the vision to concept to reality were dynamic public leadership, broad community support, the collaboration of the City, the County, and the Library Commission and the N.J. State Library Construction Bond grant.

To register to watch the NJLA Awards reception click this link:

NJLA 2021 Honors & Awards Virtual Ceremony (google.com)

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Always passionate about Cape May, John Cooke has been a full-time resident since 2004. And he’s no stranger to the sunrises here. You’ll often see him downtown loading his camera with pictures of sunrises, landscapes, and Cape May visitors. John is a regular contributor to the Cape May Star and Wave and his work has also been published in Cape May Magazine and Exit Zero Magazine. He is also heard regularly on the “Locals of Cape May” a weekly talk radio show on WCFA-LP FM 101.5. While serving as President of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May from 2010 to 2013, he helped facilitate multiple city-wide events including Harborfest, which attracted over 10,000 people to Cape May. An unofficial ambassador for all things Cape May, John now regularly blogs at (THE COOKE REPORT) AKA cookecapemay.Com, actively tweets from @cookecapemay and has an avid Instagram following by the same name. His more than 6000 followers earned him the right to be one of 17 people to watch in South Jersey in 2017 by the Press of Atlantic City.

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