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Amherst TM narrowly gives $36M library project go-ahead

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2017

AMHERST — A future expansion and renovation of the Jones Library cleared another hurdle as Town Meeting, despite some reservations about its cost and scope, authorized trustees to continue to seek money for the project from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

By a 105-94 vote, after about two hours of discussion, Town Meeting on Wednesday gave the go-ahead to apply for the state grant based on a preliminary design that will enlarge the current building from 47,000 to 65,000 square feet at the current 43 Amity St. site.

Under preliminary plans, the 1993 addition would be demolished and a new addition would extend toward the CVS Pharmacy parking lot at the rear.

Library trustee Alexandra Lefebvre said the $35.6 million project will address two pressing needs, including deferred maintenance estimated at more than $8 million, and space limitations that cause safety and accessibility issues and limit the library’s ability to meet its mission of serving all residents, including teenagers and families who speak English as a second language.

By advancing the project, Jones trustee Chris Hoffmann said a fleshed-out plan can be presented to voters.

“Let this go to the point where Town Meeting and the town have an actual plan,” Hoffmann said.

Even though the project was not stopped in its tracks, Mary Wentworth, a member of Save Our Library and a Precinct 5 representative, said trustees won a fleeting victory. If a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote is required to provide the town’s anticipated $16 million match for the state grant, that would need to achieve a two-thirds majority.

“We feel they won a majority, but the vote doesn’t give them the two-thirds they need,” Wentworth said.

The state library board’s decision on its anticipated $13.7 million grant is expected in July and Town Meeting could be asked to approve the borrowing for the town’s share of the project in the fall.

The remaining funds are expected to come from donations and tax credits.

Several Town Meeting members endorsed the continuation of the project.

Meg Gage of Precinct 1 said it is important to get in line for funding so the Jones can be a 21st-century library.

“Libraries have to become a place where people want to go,” Gage said. “We have to get them away from their Nook, get them away from their Kindle, and get them to downtown.”

Katherine Appy of Precinct 9 said accepting state money for the library ensures that the town is not pitting one capital project, such as upgraded elementary schools, against another.

“This is not an either/or choice. We can build a library and we can also focus on schools and move forward with those,” Appy said.

Joan Temkin of Precinct 8 said the last expansion made the Jones better and this could, too.

“It is the center of Amherst physically and in our hearts, just as (benefactor) Samuel Minot Jones intended it to be,” Temkin said

But several members expressed concerns. Sigurd Nilsen of Precinct 8 said demolishing the 24-year-old brick addition is unwise and the real cost to taxpayers is $29.5 million. An alternative approach, he said, would be to renovate the current building and disperse some of the programming off site.

Kenton Tharp of Precinct 1 said town officials and Town Meeting should focus on getting a new school built as soon as possible.

“We could take the money from the library and build a school,” Tharp said. “Right now we need a school, that’s the main thing we need.”

Carol Gray of Precinct 7 made the case that there is sufficient space in the building, and that any expansion would destroy the Woodbury Room, which trustees spent nearly $175,000 improving.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town is at a point where it can afford projects due to debt service being paid off and available grant money.

To the question “can the town afford this?” Bockelman said, “The answer is yes, with disciplined decisions.”

Observing the actions from the middle school balcony, Kelly Erwin of Applewood Lane said she looks forward to attending planning sessions as the project moves forward.

“I think in these times of national turbulence and lack of civility, I’m very proud to be part of Amherst as it has embraced the idea of change without fear,” Erwin said.

Meanwhile, Town Meeting easily passed a resolution calling for an investigation into impeaching President Trump for refusal to divest fully from his business interests, which may place him in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The measure passed 116-13.

Amherst resident John Bonifaz, founder of Free Speech for People and the Impeach Donald Trump Now campaign, brought the petition forward.

“No one is above the law, no matter how powerful they may be,” Bonifaz said.

Peter Vickery of Precinct 2 said he isn’t sure that the constitutional clauses the petition references apply to presidents.

“Sorry to be a spoilsport, but the Constitution doesn’t permit this course of action,” Vickery said.

Even though some members worried that impeachment could lead to Vice President Mike Pence assuming the Oval Office, an investigation is worthwhile.

“I believe this will change the office of the president if (Trump) gets away with it,” said Patricia Church of Precinct 5.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.