The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners announced yesterday (July 13) that it was awarding $67 million in provisional construction grants to nine communities, a list that included libraries in Hadley and Springfield, but not Amherst’s Jones Library.
The Baker-Polito administration placed the Jones Library 9th on a “waiting list” of 24 libraries statewide that “will receive construction grants as the funding becomes available,” through an existing or future bond bill.
A communications specialist for the MBLC, Celeste Bruno, said Amherst may have to wait two or more years for a library construction grant to be offered. “It going to be at least a few years before Amherst would be in a position to say whether it would accept a grant or not,” she said.
There are many “moving factors” that determine when a project on the waiting list is funded, Bruno said, including how much the state legislature approves in bond funds for the MBLC each year. Projects may move up on the waiting list if a community that was offered a grant can’t secure local matching funds.
Hadley, Springfield, and the seven other towns to receive the provisional grant awards yesterday have until next Jan. 12 to secure local dollars, which are often raised through property tax increases. The state grants typically represent 45 to 50 percent of total project costs.
The MBLC uses many criteria to weigh and prioritize grant applications, Bruno said, including a community’s financial need level, and how well a schematic design fits with a library’s service goals. The MBLC will be contacting applicants, such as the Jones Library Board of Trustees, with any feedback from its review, Bruno said.
Of the nine grants awarded, all were smaller than the $13.8 million sought by the Jones’ trustees. Libraries is Medford and Weymouth were granted $12 million each, but several of the grants awarded were in the $4 to $7 million range.
Hadley was granted $3.9 million for its Goodwin Memorial Library, and Springfield $4.9 million for an East Forest Park branch.
It was not immediately clear how the Jones trustees will proceed. If the grant was won this summer, the trustees said they planned to approach Amherst Town Meeting in the fall to seeking about $16 million in additional funds.
A brief notice on the Jones Library website was upbeat about the library winning a spot on the waiting list, and stated: “This is excellent news for Amherst as it will give us plenty of time to work with the community to determine its design priorities. We look forward to the next stage of this process. Please stay tuned for further details.” An email to Library Director Sharon Sharry yielded an automated reply, stating she is out of the office until Monday, July 17. An email to the trustees had not been returned as of early this afternoon. (July 14.)
Meanwhile, residents opposing expansion of the Jones, who run the website SaveOurLibrary.Net, applauded the MBLC’s decision and maintained it will allow time to revise the project, and spare a large section built in 1993 which was slated for demolition.
“Save Our Library views this failed outcome as an opportunity to ‘hit the reset button’ on the Jones Library building project. We urge Trustees to take demolition “off the table” for the 1993 brick addition that is ADA compliant and to work with the community on an environmentally sustainable approach to renovate and upgrade the Jones Library within the existing footprint,” the group stated.
The debate over the library has pitted those who yearn for a more modern facility against loyalists who like the Jones’ home-like quality, and claim that existing interior spaces could be better utilized. Still others have argued that Amherst, which has the highest residential property taxes in Hampshire County, should first prioritize its other capital expenses, including a multi-million dollar backlog of needed road repairs, replacement or renovation of two aging elementary schools, replacing the Department of Public Works facility, and building a fire station in South Amherst.
The Jones renovation was pegged at about $36 million. It would increase the existing structure from 48,000 square feet to 65,000, demolishing the 1993 section and building out towards the back of the one-acre lot. The plan calls for interior modernization, an automated checkout system, larger areas for children and teens, expanded services for English language learners, and adult bathrooms on each floor.
It is unknown whether the state library board would entertain any changes to the project now wait-listed. Applications that have been reviewed are not expected to undergo substantial revisions, Bruno said. “Your grant is based on what you submitted,” she said. It was not immediately clear whether there is a regulatory bar against changing an application to the MBLC.
Earlier this year, a firm called Western Builders Inc., was hired by the Jones trustees to evaluate the cost of pressing repairs at the Jones, independently from the bigger renovation project, which would also include fixes for those problems. The firm estimated $8 to $9.6 million to replace the atrium and an elevator, and make other improvements. The Jones trustees warned, however, that proceeding with the repairs could trigger a requirement for full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, without financial support from the state.
The plan to expand the Jones narrowly won approval from Amherst Town Meeting on May 10, after two hours of debate. The body voted voted 105 to 94, with 2 abstentions, to approve a preliminary design, and authorize the library trustees to apply for the state grant.
Of the nine members on the MBLC, the only one living in Western Mass. is N. Janeen Resnick, of South Hadley.
This article will be updated as additional information becomes available.