Case Studies

David Dillard – Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

For a good read on library logistics

A suburb of Charlotte on the southern border of North Carolina, Pineville had become a so-called library desert in Mecklenburg County. It also had an antiquated town hall.

David Dillard, the real estate director for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, helped satisfy both needs. He worked closely with the town manager to craft a long-term lease where Pineville funded the initial capital for a new joint-use building. A handsome brick 43,000-square-foot building opened last October, the upper floor for municipal services and a library below that’s open Monday through Saturday.

“But that’s just the strategy of getting a library built,” he says. “Then comes the tactical part.”

That’s a much different area than identifying a locale and arranging construction. Dillard sensing the need for outside expertise, he persuaded the county to hire a private consultant to help fashion a 15-year facilities master plan.

While each library may be unique depending on community needs, there are common denominators such as book returns, drive-up services, updated technology, location of service desks, meeting and collaboration spaces. Then there’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, staff workspace, easy access to rest rooms and elevators, and safety and security.

Those latter concerns are especially important since libraries attract lots of children for story times and programs, for them and their caregivers. Thus, the Pineville library, like every other one Dillard has helped arrange, has lots of glass so a librarian can observe what’s going on in other rooms.

“We’ve got to run every decision through a lens,” he tells Blueprint in February. “Architects focus so much on what’s cool that they forget what’s essential. So, we work closely with them and remind them.”

Four for four

Dillard does that while overseeing 21 library properties throughout the sprawling county with its 1 million dwellers. “I’ve got to be both strategic and tactical,” he emphasizes, “as well as transactional and operational.” A four-fer, if there is such a term.

Formerly a real estate broker and portfolio manager who identified and negotiated the purchases of Class-A buildings and other properties, Dillard brought much transactional experience to his position here since 2018. When the county’s lease on a hospital-owned property was to expire in 2020, Dillard negotiated two two-year extensions and, in the interim, sealed a public-private partnership with a developer who agreed to fund the capital costs of a new regional library.

As far as the operational aspect goes, it’s about ensuring that the services specified in the facilities maintenance contracts are performed properly and timely.

So, Dillard is asked, is there anything about the county’s library system that he’s not involved in?

“I’m very sensitive about deferring all that’s library-related to the librarians and library leaders,” he answers. “I don’t make collection or program decisions although I weigh in on shelving heights and the need for nice views. My focus is real estate.”

A friend in need

Lee Keesler, the former chief executive officer of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library was looking for just such a person when he wrote a job description around five years ago. Keesler contacted Dillard, a longtime friend who was well-versed in real estate and seemingly easing into retirement, for insight.

“Lee, this is a great job description,” Dillard recalls telling him. “But you’re asking for somebody who’s strategic and tactical as well as operational and transactional. These are different skillsets that are hard to find in any one person.”

Keesler awarded the job to Dillard, remarking that he’d be the system’s first real estate director who actually had a background to match. Much has happened since then.

Prior to 2022, Charlotte had three regional libraries due for renovation with as many architects and general contractors involved. Dillard managed the subsequent expansion of the former Scaleybark facility from 5,000 square feet to nearly 19,000 square feet. It now has reimagined spaces for children and teens, quiet reading, group study, community gathering and “calming space,” as well as a computer lab and rooms for computer programming.

A similar plan to consolidate libraries is being carried out in the Charlotte neighborhood of University City, with completion planned for next year. Then there’s the rebuilding of the main library in uptown Charlotte that should be ready in 2025. The original library, which opened in 1903, was funded by Andrew Carnegie, so there’s quite a legacy to fulfill. In some afterlife that industrialist and philanthropist might be smiling when the new Main library opens with its five public floors, outdoor terraces,  cafe, public art and art exhibition spaces, numerous meeting rooms, an enhanced Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, and other attractions.

Pre-Dillard, these projects were mostly handled by someone whose background was exclusively library. Real estate’s now too complex to be such an afterthought, says the 60-something Dillard who’s enjoying his first public sector role in a career that stretches back to his 1980 graduation from Guilford College.

A most fulfilling career, he says about his role with major property management firms and nine-year stretch with Bank of America in Charlotte. His old friend Keesler having retired, Dillard now answers to CEO Marcellus Turner.

“I love the work I do, the people I work with, and the mission of the library system,” says this congenial grandfather. “There’s never any office politics here, it’s all very collaborative. Best of all, my spouse loves how happy I am when I come home. I view this as my second-half career.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.

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