Amherst library dips into endowment to pay architects up to $551K to pare Jones project cost

Austin Sarat, president of the Jones Library board of trustees.

Austin Sarat, president of the Jones Library board of trustees.  FILE PHOTO

Jones Library

Jones Library file photo


Staff Writer

Published: 06-13-2024 8:03 PM

AMHERST — More than $500,000 from the Jones Inc. endowment will be used to pay Finegold Alexander Architects for an additional 12 weeks of work, during which its team will aim to reduce the costs of the proposed expansion and renovation of the Jones Library before the project goes out for a second round of bids in the fall.

Trustees for the library on Monday voted 4-0, with member Eugene Goffredo absent, to use up to $550,700 from the endowment to pay the architects to do so-called “value engineering,” trimming aspects of the estimated $46.1 million expansion and renovation of the 43 Amity St. building.

At a previous meeting, both the trustees and the Library Building Committee approved a preliminary list of cuts presented by Finegold Alexander that would save about $3 million, a step taken after the lone bid for the project from Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield was $6.5 million over the budgeted amount for construction, and was rejected by Town Manager Paul Bockelman. Project backers hope to secure a more favorable bid before the end of the year.

The project calls for removing the 1993 addition and then enlarging the building from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet, overhauling mechanical systems and doing other renovations to the original 1928 portion of the Jones, including removing asbestos.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said that as of June 6, there is $9.26 million in the endowment and that she would work with investment managers to ensure the payments to the architects are “not a permanent reduction.”

Sharry said she sees the use of the endowment for this purpose as causing minimal impact on ongoing library services. While the endowment is used to support operations through an annual “draw,” this has been lean in recent years and the library has been less dependent on it, with better and more active financial policies leading the endowment to grow.

The use of endowment funds to pay the architects will be included in a memorandum of agreement that also must be signed by Bockelman. That agreement states that if the project doesn’t move forward, the town is not obligated to return money to the library and all previous provisions of the deal remain in place. Previous memorandums of agreement, to protect the town from incurring any significant costs related to a failed project, were signed in 2021 and 2022.

The vote comes a week after the Town Council narrowly approved keeping the project moving and following a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners vote to allow an extension in seeking bids through the end of the year.

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The Town Council postponed a motion from its June 3 meeting that advises “the town manager not enter into a new contract with an architect for additional expenses for new design work for the bidding phase of the project, if the deadline is extended and there is a decision to re-bid the project in the fall.” That motion is expected to be taken up at the council’s June 17 meeting.

Some councilors are concerned that the $15.8 million the town is putting toward the project, along with a MBLC grant, federal money and private fundraising, will be insufficient, as not only was the bid $6.5 million beyond estimated construction costs, but fundraising is also about $7 million short.

Trustees President Austin Sarat said while the endowment will feel an impact, trustees have previously committed to a $1.8 million obligation over three years if the project doesn’t move forward and to cover immediate costs Even in a worst-case scenario, “what we do in the library can continue to be done,” Sarat said.

Sarat said despite the value engineering, the vision of the new library and its programming remains, with more space for the English as a Second Language program and reading rooms; room to display the historic Civil War tablets that pay tribute to the African-American soldiers, including some present in Galveston, Texas at the end of the Civil War; an improved special collections; and a dedicated room for teens.

Even with the cuts and changes, the project will continue to ensure the library is net zero ready and eliminates the use of fossil fuels.

“This plan leaves our library in much better shape than it is now,” Sarat said. “That vision will be realized even with the proposed value engineering cuts.”

And Sarat said there should be some confidence that the bidding environment will be more favorable, based on the experience for MBLC projects in other cities and towns.

Sharry noted that immediate renovations to the building, if the project fails, would be supported through both endowment and the town’s Joint Capital Planning Committee, including HVAC improvements, fire alert and sprinkler systems, and the atrium roof.

Trustee Tamson Ely said she understands there is a risk in spending more money from the endowment to pay the architects, but continuing to move the project forward is important. She noted the support it received from voters in a referendum vote in November 2021, and from the Town Council, which has repeatedly acted to support the project, including increasing the borrowing authorization in December.

“I don’t see any other alternative, given the previous predisposition of the town at this time,” Ely said.

As a trustee co-chairing the capital campaign, Lee Edwards said the $550,700 is the upper limit for the new spending on architects and believes that community members knowing rebidding is happening will give confidence to those who want to donate or pledge, allowing the campaign to maximize fundraising over the next five to six months to close the remaining gap in project funding.