By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — With a beloved but cramped building in urgent need of costly repairs, the trustees of the Meredith Public Library are faced with a dilemma and have turned to the general public for guidance in overcoming it.
This week the trustees hosted the second of two public meetings to sound out residents about the future of the library, which boils down to a choice between "rejuvenating" the existing building on Main Street or building a library at another site.
"We need to know where we are going, what we're going to do," Duncan McNeish told some 50 people gathered at the Community Center.
With a generous donation from Benjamin M. Smith, the library bearing his name was was dedicated in 1901 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, when the citation described it as "not only Meredith's finest public building, but also one of the Lake Region's most attractive libraries." In 1988, a 4,000-square-foot addition more than doubled the floor space of the original building to 7,800 square feet.
Last year, the library counted 5,292 cardholders, a number representing 85 percent of the 6,241 residents of the town reported by the census in 2010.
McNeish explained that in 2011 a routine inspection found the building failed to comply with fire and safety codes, a judgment subsequently confirmed by the New Hampshire State Fire Marshall's Office, which led to the closure of space on the upper level in 2013. In 2012, assessments of the building by two architects versed in historic construction and renovation found that the library needed extensive repairs costing between $300,000 and $500,000. Altogether, between 2008 and 2015, the library and the town spent $419,710, of which state grants represented $100,000, on repairs and maintenance without overcoming the major the major shortcomings of the building, such as replacing the rear staircase and installing a sprinkler system.
Two years ago, the trustees formed a Library Master Plan Committee and hired Thomas Ladd, a library consultant, to project the amount of space the library would require to offer anticipated services in the future. Ladd concluded that 13,855 square feet, nearly twice the size of the existing library would be needed together with parking for between 34 and 69 vehicles.
McNeish said that in light of the condition of the library and the need for space and after canvassing public opinion the trustees decided to explore the costs of renovating and expanding the old, or building anew, and hired Lavallee Brensinger Architects of Manchester.
Ron Lamarre of Lavallee Brensinger sketched a vision of a future library, emphasizing that because it would serve diverse, changing and unforeseen needs, from providing information instantaneously to staging events, hosting meetings and connecting people, the space should be open to to reconfiguration. He estimated a three- or four-acre lot would be needed for a new library to match the projected need for space and parking.
Lamarre suggested a new 14,000-square-foot library could be built for $4.2 million, excluding the cost of acquiring the site, while the cost of renovating and expanding the existing library would be $5.6 million, with additional costs to comply with the requirements of maintaining a historic building.
McNeish said that the trustees have considered several properties, including the nearby First Baptist Church and Humiston Building, so far without success.
Jack Carty pointed to the town's aging demographic and stable population while suggesting that the library could potentially contribute to the effort to revitalize the center of the village. However, before offering an opinion, he said he would need more information.
"What abut the future of Meredith?" asked Jonathan James, a selectman, who referred to the committee that was recently formed to address demographic and economic issues facing the town. Noting the aging population, he asked "What can be done to change that?" and offered that "The library could be part of the puzzle."
Rhetta Colon, who recently chaired the board of trustees, agreed that it is important to ask what can the library do for the community, but, mindful of the urgency of the situation, she said "That building is falling apart," and encouraged the trustees to find a site either inside or outside the village.
Without consensus among the residents, Miller Lovett, a trustee, reiterated that the trustees have yet to reach a decision to "stay where we are or get to a new place" and indicated the board may next approach the Board of Selectmen.
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