A depiction of $4.145 million in projected costs to renovate and expand the existing Meredith Public Library faces an audience while Nathan Torr, chairman of the Meredith Selectmen, listens to a presentation about options for library facilities Monday. (David Carkhuff/The Laconia Daily Sun)
Meredith selectmen defer to voters on library move
By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — Plans for the Meredith Public Library to leave Main Street likely will rise or fall on a warrant article to voters feeling out the public mood about moving the library to a new building along Route 3.
That was the sentiment of several Meredith Selectmen Monday at a workshop where public opinion was split over a library trustee proposal to build a new library at a cost of $3.15 million.
Selectman Bev Lapham said, "I personally have not made up my mind on the issue of should we stay or should we go? But I think that's a viable question. But there seems to be a body of people who don't want it to go, and if we could accomplish not moving but developing a library that everybody could be proud of and satisfied with, square footage and so forth, within that footprint, then it seems to me it satisfies both terms. As you well know, depending on the fundraising, we're going to have to go to the taxpayers and say, 'Here's a bond we want you to agree on,' and if we're still indecisive on a community basis as to should we leave or should we stay, that would certainly complicate the issue of the bonding."
Nobody at Monday's workshop could point to a consensus about whether the historic library building, the Benjamin M. Smith Memorial Library, should remain home to the services and collections currently housed there.
Selectman Jonathan James said, "The charm of the old building is half of why people want to keep the old building in use as much as possible."
Over two years ago, the library trustees formed a Library Master Plan Committee and hired a library consultant to analyze space needs. On March 1, 2016, a library planning committee, regarding a public forum at the time, reported, "There is a clear and identified lack of space. This is true of collection space, meeting space, quiet space, and parking space. A number of codes with regard to access and safety have drastically changed over the more than a century since the library was built. It is currently in violation of a number of the current codes, including lack of an elevator, lack of a sprinkler system, and lack of appropriate, sufficient egresses from the higher levels. The library being on seven levels presents a number of problems both for safety and efficient operation."
The Meredith Public Library Planning Committee reported, "In its current form the library has outlived its ability to meet the community's needs. There are also a number of costs associated with maintaining the status quo that in no way help to move towards a library that meets the community's needs, but must be implemented simply to keep the building functioning, for instance the recent masonry and gutter project."
Library officials reported 53,498 visits last year, and more than 6,000 attendees to programs last year.
Trustees have considered several properties, including the nearby First Baptist Church and Humiston Building, but no firm plans materialized during two years of exploration.
But the picture of available options became clearer this week. On Monday, consultant Ron Lamarre said a study found a 14,000-square-foot facility would meet the expressed needs for the library. The library board, he said, wrestled with a "mission goal" centering on the question: "Do we stay or do we go?"
"If we stay at the existing site, how do we do that? We know why we have to do something, now how are we going to do that? If we go, what does that look like?" Lamarre told selectmen, describing the debate.
The community was polled and they wanted more services and more hours, Lamarre said. The second rationale for exploring an expansion stemmed from the library being a "cultural center of the community," and a perceived inability to fulfill that role due to space constraints, he said.
An energy audit found the existing building used twice the amount of energy that would be consumed in a modern building, and the seven-level building posed challenges for running programs and providing access, Lamarre said.
A site search resulted in discovery of a property at Parade Road and Route 3, the Robertson property, and an assessment found the town could build a 14,000-square-foot library for $3.15 million, including $300,000 for land acquisition, Lamarre said.
Cost to stay at the existing library, including renovations to the 3,300-square-foot historic building and a 12,000-square-foot addition, would reach $4.145 million, he said.
"You're looking, at least, at a million dollars more for the project, another year of construction, and that does not include dealing with any restoration work," Lamarre said.
The addition would cost $2.7 million; two elevators and three staircases would cost $350,000; an extra year of construction would cost $600,000; and limited work on the existing building would cost $495,000, he estimated.
But the extra cost of staying on Main Street didn't tilt public opinion in favor of a move, Lamarre conceded.
Lamarre said, "When we've gone out and done our surveys, it's basically 50-50, right? Half the people say, 'We want to stay.' The other half say, 'We want to go.'"
Lamarre suggested a warrant article that proposes that selectmen negotiate an option to buy the Robertson property. "If you're willing to do that, then really doesn't that vote tell you whether or not the folks in the community support moving?"
That suggestion prompted an objection from Selectmen's Chairman Nathan Torr, who said, "I think you've got the horse behind the cart there. I think we would take something to the town to see what the initial feeling is as far as money is concerned, and that would be an article presented by the library trustees, and then come back to the board of selectmen."
Town Manager Phillip Warren Jr. took a different tack. He said he'd suggested to the town's capital improvement program advisory committee that the voters be asked to support placing $50,000 in an expendable trust fund, with $30,000 to support a feasibility study on use of the Robertson property. This would be a de facto "yes or no" question about moving, he said.
Selectman Ray Moritz recalled that proposal and said, "It was strictly up for an engineering study on the new property. So what the CIP had requested was that the warrant article make it crystal clear that you're not just asking for $30,000 or $50,000, but you're essentially saying, 'Yes, we're agreeing to move,' since it's money being spent on another property."
Moritz concluded, "This will wind up one way or another as a warrant article for bonding."
Selectman Michael Pelczar said, "I'm not comfortable, as a board of selectmen, with picking a site. I'm just not comfortable." He agreed the voters should decide on which location to select.
Pelczar also agreed a warrant article regarding trust fund spending should be "as clear as daylight" that the library would move off Main Street, giving voters a black-and-white decision.
"We have to find out in real votes or real numbers what this town wants to have happen with that library," he said.
Resident Andy Lane, an engineer on the Laconia library and various other library buildings, said the Meredith Public Library trustees "were a bit premature" in deciding to move.
"They turned those subsequent meetings into reasons to move," he said, calling the decision hasty and poorly researched.
Beverly Heyduk, library trustee, said the preference for moving was not taken lightly. "We know that that building no longer serves the library adequately."
Main Street business owner Bob Manley said the library's relocation would devastate Main Street businesses, which are "struggling as evidenced by vacant buildings, boarded-up buildings."
But Jane Ramsay, a library trustee, said she uses a walker and faces great difficulty navigating floors of the existing library. "It's nice to say it's a wonderful, old library, but it isn't accessible," she said.
Selectmen ended the workshop without making any decisions, but board members said the issue could be revisited prior to Town Meeting. Another meeting of the Meredith Selectmen could take place in early February, tentatively Feb. 7, prior to Town Meeting on March 15. Conceptual plans from the library board can be viewed at http://www.meredithlibrary.org/blog/concept-plans-for-building-project.
Ron Lamarre, a consultant for the library board, gives a presentation about options for library facilities Monday at a Meredith Selectmen's workshop. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)