Jones Library ESL center getting state design money as expansion project backers press on

  • An artist’s conception of what the renovated and expanded Jones Library might look like.

Staff Writer
Monday, September 05, 2022

AMHERST — At the Jones Library, immigrants, students and other non-English speakers in the region have been honing their communication skills in the English Language and Citizenship Program since the 1980s.

As the program has grown in prominence over time, though, some of this education is now done at tables scattered throughout the library, and sometimes even in a quiet corner of the building or a stairwell.

Those are reasons that Lynne Weintraub, coordinator of the ESL program, has supported a renovated and expanded library that will offer better space for those learners, who annually receive more than 16,000 hours in conversation and language instruction, including assistance to gain U.S. citizenship.

“What we don’t have here now, and I have always dreamed of, is a place where waiting students and tutors can chat together without disturbing the people studying or having to stand in the stacks,” Weintraub said in a statement.

The focus on the ESL center comes as the Jones Library capital campaign announced Thursday that $50,000 is included in the state budget to pay for a portion of its design costs. That money was secured by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

With the project to expand and renovate the Jones Library facing inflationary pressures, finding such sources of funding is going to be critical as the capital campaign pushes beyond its original goal, says campaign Co-Chairman Kent Faerber.

“We’ve known we’d need to raise more than $6.6 million,” Faerber said.

The latest cost estimates show that the $36.3 million project for the 43 Amity St. building could rise to somewhere between $43 million and $50 million.

Ginny Hamilton, who is managing the capital campaign, told the Jones Library Building Committee this week that fundraising is already ahead of the original timeline. Organizers had hoped to reach half the $6.6 million goal by next May, but are already close to that, she said.

The campaign has brought in $1.3 million of the $3.3 million goal from institutions, and $1.79 million of the $3.3 million goal from individuals has already been pledged.

Faerber said hiring Hamilton and getting professional accounting help and a graphic designer to design materials and a website are all part of the stepped-up campaign getting underway.

“We’re putting a more robust campaign together than we had planned,” Faerber said.

The $50,000 from the state also supplements a $1 million commitment from the town’s Community Preservation Act account going for the special collections room, $200,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, $46,000 from the Beveridge Foundation, and at least $1.6 million in Massachusetts historic tax credits that will come when the project is complete.

The fundraising efforts have included being in regular contact with the federal legislative delegation as well, Faerber said. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern has helped by putting a $1.1 million earmark in the House budget after getting a tour of the existing library, who, and a draft application for an infrastructure challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities has been completed.

Amherst is also joining other communities in making an appeal to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and state officials for more state funding for their library projects.

Meanwhile, he appreciates that library officials have avoided a pause in groundwork for the overall expansion project or interruptions that would disrupt the capital campaign. Actions that have occurred this week have been positive, with the elected trustees committing to keeping the project on track by pledging to use the Jones Inc. endowment to help pay for it, followed by the building committee voting 5-1 that the project continue toward completion of the design phase and eventual bid documents.

Both Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Finance Director Sean Mangano abstained from the building committee’s vote, while committee member Zander Lopez voted against proceeding out of worry about pressing ahead with cost estimates ballooning. Lopez said his concern is whether the town has sufficient money, noting that teachers have not been able to reach a new contract with the School Committee.

But trustee Alex Lefebvre said her concern is that it would be fiscally irresponsible to not continue; and Austin Sarat, president of the trustees, said at the lowest end of estimates, and with the funding plan in place, there would be no increased cost to the town.

Bockelman said how the project proceeds is a conversation between the trustees and the Town Council, with his responsibility to make sure that the library expansion and renovation is done along with building a new elementary school, a Department of Public Works headquarters and South Amherst fire station.

“We have a lot of uncertainty at this moment,” Bockelman said.

When the expanded and renovated library is complete, library officials anticipate a simplified layout and better signs that will make the building fully accessible and easier for newcomers to navigate, including those dropping in to the ESL Center.