Jones Library trustees to ask state for 6 more months to find contractor for expansion project

Jones Library trustees are appealing to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to extend the deadline for awarding a general contractor bid for the renovation and expansion of the 43 Amity St. building.

Jones Library trustees are appealing to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to extend the deadline for awarding a general contractor bid for the renovation and expansion of the 43 Amity St. building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-28-2024 10:46 AM

AMHERST — Jones Library trustees are appealing to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to extend the deadline for awarding a general contractor bid for the $46.1 million renovation and expansion of the 43 Amity St. building.

Trustees on Monday voted 4-1, with member Robert Pam dissenting and member Eugene Goffredo recusing himself from the meeting, to send a letter to the state agency that would allow Town Manager Paul Bockelman to postpone signing a contract with a general contractor to Dec. 31, a six-month delay from the original June 30 deadline to have a contract in place.

“I think this remains an important project for us, and an important project for the town,” President Austin Sarat said in advance of the vote.

Assuming the extension is granted, Sarat said the time will be used by library officials and Finegold Alexander Architects to get to certainty about the costs of the project, without abandoning it, after the lone general contracting bid from Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield came in at $42.7 million. That bid is at least $6.5 million over cost estimates and well over what the town has in hand.

The vote came a week after trustees voted to recommend rejecting the lone bid from Fontaine Brothers. Bockelman has until June 10 to accept or reject the bid.

As of April 1, all sources combined for the project total about $39.13 million. Already facing a gap between current commitments and fundraising of $7 million, the bid from Fontaine Brothers essentially means doubling that gap to $14 million.

The project is being supported with a $15.8 million commitment from the Town Council and about $15.6 million in two allotments from the MBLC, an initial $13.8 million grant and an additional $1.69 million “pandemic escalation” money. The project has also depended on significant fundraising from the library’s capital campaign and has also secured $1 million in grants from Amherst College and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sarat said the trustees can’t abandon the needs of the community, such as the English as a Second Language program and teens, who need a dedicated room, and that the project will serve the town for decades to come. “We need to do our best to determine what we can do to make this project work,” Sarat said.

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Under this scenario, the town would go back out to bid in September and the Jones Library Building Committee, in the meantime, would work with architects Finegold Alexander to get to a design that would reduce costs, though not likely to close the gap, since an alternate programming vision can’t be designed under the terms of the state library grant and the size of the building is mandated to go from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet.

Sarat said the hope is that a more favorable bidding environment, though, would bring the project in line with cost estimates.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said six general contractors were prequalified and that the filed sub bids were under estimates. Sharry said her conversations with MBLC officials indicates that the appeal will be acted on favorably. “They absolutely want this project to move forward,” Sharry said.

Ellen Anselone, a principal at Finegold Alexander, said the bids will be advertised at the end of what is known as the “summer slam,” though it will take work to get contractors interested.

With the decision, trustee Lee Edwards, who co-chairs the capital campaign, said a vigorous pursuit will be made of getting more pledges and more statements of interest.

As with the unanimous decision to reject the bid, Goffredo, because his wife, Ginny Hamilton, is an employee of the Friends of the Jones Library, recused himself. Hamilton is the manager of the capital campaign and Goffredo left the virtual meeting entirely.

Pam read a statement expressing reservations with the decision, anticipating that another $250,000 investment will be made in redesign, and that fundraising has already slowed to a snail’s pace since the December Town Council vote to increase borrowing authorization to $46.1 million, up from the $36.3 million commitment it made April 5, 2021, with just $425,000 brought in.

Even with the vote, Sarat said the Buildings and Facilities Committee of the trustees will be working on an alternative renovation-only plan.

Several members of the public commented, a mix of those supporting and opposing the latest decision.

“This is a valuable project — the community wants this project,” said Clare Betrand of Bay Road, who also thanked the trustees for “keeping hope alive.”

“Please don’t give up,” said Laetitia La Follette of Dana Street. “It’s really, really critical for the town that the project goes forward.”

Kelly Erwin of Applewood Lane said she appreciates the persistence and tenacity and that she and her friends are looking forward to enjoying the expanded and renovated library.

But the decision came with concerns from both Maria Kopicki of South Amherst and Jeff Lee of South East Street, who asked who pays for the added costs of design in the coming months. It was also questioned by District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, who serves on the building committee and wondered if a new agreement would be needed with the Town Council.