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Charlotte Observer: Former ASC Leader Now Heading Library

Lee Keesler. Photo courtesy Charlotte Observer

Lee Keesler. Photo courtesy Charlotte Observer. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library board hired former Arts & Science Council CEO Lenoir "Lee" Keesler Jr. as its new head, citing his strong financial background. Keesler, who led the ASC from 2004 to 2009, will assume the job July 1, at a salary of $180,000. Even though Keesler, 57, doesn't have library experience, library board members said they were impressed with his service as a community leader while at the ASC and his 24 years as an executive with First Union and Wachovia Corp., which was acquired by Wells Fargo. He has worked the past year as director of market development at Barry, Evans, Josephs & Snipes, a Carolinas insurance and executive benefits firm in Charlotte. Ed Williams, who chaired the CEO search committee, said that kind of experience is critical, considering the financial challenges the library has faced during the economic downturn. The system experienced a $10 million budget cut in 2010 from the county, which supplies about 90 percent of the library's money. The lost funds prompted 180 layoffs, closing of four locations and cutting library hours by half. Hours at six regional branches were restored for fiscal year 2012, thanks to an extra $2 million provided by the county. "It was important to us that we have someone who had success as a leader in the community," said Williams, the Observer's former editorial page editor. "We know the community will not (easily) snap back from the effects of the recession. It will be a slow climb, so there will be challenges." The board's unanimous vote concluded a search that began with more than a dozen candidates, all of whom were identified as leaders of local businesses or nonprofits. Names of the candidates were never released. Initially, library officials projected the CEO starting salary at between $112,800 and $141,000. However, search committee members said a re-examination of the market rate put the salary range more accurately at $140,000 to $195,000. The $180,000 salary is consistent with Keesler's education and experience, officials said, and is on par with the salary of former library Director Charles Brown. It was his resignation last year that set the CEO search into motion. Keesler made in excess of $200,000 annually while leading the ASC, but said Monday that the library job "wasn't about the money." "The library wasn't even on my radar until I was approached about (applying) in December," said Keesler, a history buff who gave library trustees a brief 120-year history lesson about the system after accepting the job. "I see this as being about serving the community. It's one of the best ways to say 'thank you' to the people who built this." He will succeed Vick Phillips, another former banker who temporarily assumed the newly created CEO title in January 2011, when Charles Brown's resigned. Phillips has agreed to stay on through July, to make for a smoother transition. During a news conference Monday, Keesler noted there are many similarities between the library and the ASC, the community's chief advocate for arts, science, history and heritage. That organization suffered its own financial setbacks during the recession, including a 37 percent drop in money for its 2009 campaign. As a result, the agency reduced overhead, cut one third of its staff, and trimmed annual operating grants given to more than 20 organizations. Like the library, the ASC gets a large part of its money from tax dollars: 31 percent of its 2011 budget (over $4.3 million) came from the city, county, state, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and surrounding towns, ASC officials said. Keesler acknowledged Monday that money remains a challenge for the library, but said he feels the bigger issue is being able to give the community the kind of library service it expects. That expectation was at the core of public protests that erupted after the library announced branch closures and cuts to hours in 2010. He declined to go into specifics of any changes ahead. However, he will be expected to lead the library in the creation of a new strategic plan as recommended by the Future of the Library Task Force. Among those suggestions is the creation of a foundation that will help raise money for the library system. "We'll get to work soon on creating the next chapter of the library," he said. Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.