By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — The Library Trustee-Select Board Joint Feasibility Study Advisory Committee will meet Thursday, May 18, to discuss steps forward in addressing accessibility and code issues at the Benjamin M. Smith Memorial Library.
Voters at Town Meeting appropriated $50,000 to investigate what can be done to improve the public library at its current location. The money would cover the cost of having a civil engineer look into the possible reconfiguration of the current library to accommodate an addition, according to Selectman Raymond Moritz.
"The library trustees estimated that would cost $30,000," Moritz said, "but the select board felt we should include enough money to make sure it covered the work, and to have a little left over to move forward after that."
He said there will have to be more engineering studies to come up with a final design.
Moritz said the goal is not to look at "the optimum library configuration or utopian space needs. The consultants the trustees hired have already done that. What we need to address is what can be done at the current location, what you can accommodate, and what it will cost. That way, we should have a pretty good comparison of the cost of staying versus the cost of leaving."
Library trustees have been wrestling with building needs for six years, after learning that the third-floor children and young adult balcony area did not meet current life-safety codes. The area is accessible by a steep, narrow staircase, and several other sections of the library also do not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There also are a number of space concerns, according to Library Director Erin Apostolos.
Through the years, the trustees have compiled several reports and evaluations, including looking at ways the library might expand. They originally looked at purchasing the church next door, but the congregation has decided to remain there for the time being. Trustees also looked at other properties, including the nearby Humiston Building.
The most promising of the other sites was the Robertson property at the intersection of Route 3 and Parade Road. Consultant Ron Lamarre estimated it would cost $3.15 million to build a 14,000-square-foot library. The current library has 7,800 square feet.
In all of the studies involving a land purchase, the trustees were mindful of whether the plan would prove to be feasible, Apostolos said, and each site has had its limitations.
Other areas of concern at the current site are the limited parking behind the library and the difficulty of using the front entrance. People walking to the library often find they have to continue all the way around the building to enter by the more accessible door from the rear parking lot.
In recent years, the town has spent more than $400,000 on repairs to the library without addressing the rear staircase or installation of a sprinkler system. Yet taxpayers may balk at an expensive building plan, even if it proves to be less costly in the end.
Apostolos said there is a great deal of sentimental attachment to the existing building, which was dedicated in 1901 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. At that time, it was described as "not only Meredith's finest public building, but also one of the Lakes Region's most attractive libraries."
That is the dilemma facing the newly appointed advisory committee, which comprises two trustees, two selectmen, five at-large members, and one alternate.
Meeting on May 1, the two library trustees, Jim McFarland and Pam Coburn, along with Moritz and Selectman Jonathan James, named the applicants who wanted to serve on the committee. The at-large members are Andy Lane, Jack Carty, Rusty McLear, Jeanie Forrester, and Ed Touhey, with Paula Wanzer serving as the alternate. Moritz said the names are familiar because they are "people who care about the town and have contributed over the years, tremendously."
The first order of business on May 18, he said, is to choose committee officers.
"We on the select board advocate one of the at-large members to serve as the chair, and also will elect a secretary," he said.
"We've made all the prior studies available on the web, and gave them links," he said, "so I hope everyone will do their homework and be prepared at the meeting. I've tried my best to make sure this is a bounded, not a wide-open committee that thinks its charge is to investigate everything."
Because of the library's historic designation, there are limits on what repairs are allowed. The front facade must be preserved, but the library in 1988 had a 4,000-square-foot addition in 1988 and, Moritz said, by focusing on what can be done to improve the library at its current location, the town will be able to compare that cost with the cost of building a new facility.
"It's too early for people to be approving or rejecting the cost of either," he said. "There's already a feeling of why do we have to move. There's a lot of emotion to say we should stay where we're at.
"The trustees have voted to move," Moritz continued, "but I think what they did is they looked at their definition of a library and the square footage required, and therefore said we must move. A lot of townspeople are saying, 'What if we can give you a 90 percent library to stay here?' We need a fair and intelligent choice to offer to taxpayers.
"I'm guessing the engineer would tell us the smartest thing would be to build a two-story building that attaches and is accessed by current building, and purchase property for parking."
The joint committee's meeting, which is open to the public, will take place May 18 at 6 p.m. in the library's nonfiction room.
A steep rear staircase leading to the children and young adult area is one of the areas of concern at the Benjamin M. Smith Memorial Library in Meredith. (Thomas P. Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)
Those with disabilities may find the front walkway and entrance of the Benjamin M. Smith Memorial Library too daunting, but a more accessible entrance to the public library lies all the way around the building, at the back parking lot. (Thomas P. Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)