Beaufort County officials expected the $11.1 million St. Helena Library branch to attract a wave of new users when it opened last fall.
Almost six months later, the branch has surpassed expectations, seeing a steady rise in cardholders and visitors.
"People come in and they are awed," library system director Wlodek Zaryczny said this week. "That is probably the best single word I can use. They are absolutely awed by the facility and what it has to offer."
At least 506 people have applied for new library cards at the 23,500-square-foot branch since it opened in early October, according to county data from Feb. 28. Nearly 9,000 people visited the library, located at 6355 Jonathan Francis Sr. Road on the Penn Center campus, during the same period.
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The new branch replaces a classroom-sized facility in nearby St. Helena Elementary.
Not only is the library larger, its collection has more than doubled to 23,000 items. It also boasts media center, audio room, teen wing and a conference room that hosts large functions, including County Council's retreat two weeks ago.
The facility has also become a community hub on the rural island, which has about 9,500 residents.
It hosts adult education classes and serves as a voting precinct during elections. A county magistrate court operates from the branch on Mondays. There's also space for regular Gullah-Geechee presentations.
"Circulation figures and the number of people that come into the branch continues to increase," Zaryczny said.
Similar circulation and new library card information for other branches during the same period was not immediately available.
The new library cost about $11.1 million to build, with about $5 million of the money coming from federal grants or local impact fees. A federal loan paid for the rest.
Library hours were cut in 2011, in part to avoid a tax increase to cover operating costs at the new branch. That decision has raised fairness questions among some in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, who argued the branch was too big and too costly.
But now that it's open, complaints about the new library's size and cost have essentially dropped off, County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said.
"I think everybody realizes it's appropriately sized and it's aesthetically appropriate." he said.
In fact, he's heard anecdotally that some Lady's Island residents are starting to use the new branch instead of the one in downtown Beaufort -- which was the goal all along.
"Downtown has a parking problem and you have to pay to park if you can find parking," Sommerville said. "There are some disadvantages."
Attempts to reach Councilman William McBride and Library Trustee Patsy Hand, both of St. Helena Island, were unsuccessful last week.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.