ROCKPORT — Citizens squeezed into the Richardson Room at their town office Jan. 20 to hear from Portland Public Library’s Executive Director Steve Podgajny, who has been retained to study Rockport’s library, specifically its programs and spaces. In the room, as well, were members of the group Friends of Rockport, who are asking that the June municipal warrant include the question: “To see if the Town will vote that any reconstruction, expansion, improvement, renovation or replacement of the Rockport Public Library be limited to its current location at 1 Limerock Street.”
The two matters — hiring an consultant to review the library’s programs, and the continued emphasis on the library’s location — reflects an ongoing and deep discussion about what, and where, the town wants its library to be.
To Podgajny, the issue is not necessarily a negative one. It represents a community that has a healthy interest in its cultural center.
“This debate, I'd like to argue, means that people care,” he said, speaking to the residents, town staff, and Select Board members, who filled the seats and lined the walls. “If Rockport didn’t care about what a great library it has, you wouldn't have the high speed Internet backbone. Being good doesn't mean being big. I think the work that was done over the last four years, the listening sessions, architectural work, community survey, I think it is really good work and a great jumping-off place.”
The Library Committee voted 4 to 1 (Committee member Stephanie Lash casting the dissenting vote) at the Jan. 20 to pay Podgajny $4,100 from the committee’s checking account to proceed with an assessment that he said he will finish by the end of June.
The library has its own trust fund (established in 1980) that is currently in a $840,000 Schwab investment account. The fund’s checking account has $44,909 in it.
While the Rockport Public Libraryis part of municipal government (the town hires its executive director and staff), and the library building falls under municipal care, the program funding falls under the oversight of the Library Committee, which consists of elected officials, all Rockport residents.
The committee, which was established in 1914 to have the care and control of library and funds, comprises five members. They include Michelle Gabrielsen, Stevie Kumble, Cate Monroe, Chairman Kathleen Meil and Stephanie Lash. Select board liaisons are William Chapman and Charlton Ames.
The committee’s directive is to work with the library director on updating library policies, develop strategic planning initiatives and oversee the management and the use of earnings from the endowment fund. That includes gifts to the library and desk income.
At the Jan. 20 meeting, Library Committee Chairman Kathleen Meil said the library is “under joint care of the town and Library Committee. Rockport, the town, is responsible for the physical space and the staff is responsible for services and programs. Given that division of responsibility, the next stage is similarly divided. The town is taking on the assessment of current physical space and how that building may be able to meet present and future needs.”
She said the task is to determine how to position the library for the future, and articulate the possibilities.
The engineering study of the building and the Podgajny work are two independent pieces. In the end, the two will be put together “and see how they match.”
“If areas don't match up, that's where we have the interesting conversations,” she said.
In 2013, the Library Committee proposed moving the library from its current site near Memorial Park and building a new library on the town-owned site on the corner of Route 1 and West Street, the former location of Rockport Elementary School (RES). That school has since relocated further out on West Street (Route 90).
Both sites, 1 Limerock Street and RES locations, are within the village geography, and the RES site proposal engendered a broader discussion about the boundaries of Rockport Village and the definition of Rockport’s downtown.
Last November at the polls, Rockport citizens voted down two measures pertaining to the library. They voted 989 to 867 against developing a plan for a new library. And they voted 1,065 to 786 to primarily consider the RES site as a location for a new library.
After the November vote, the Library Committee, which had endorsed the two November ballot measures, refocused its attention on the library programs, and its existing building.
In mid-January, Library Director Anne Filley publicly reported:
“The Library Committee worked long and hard to make sure that the information they provided was an accurate and fair representation of what many people feel represented the best solution to an overcrowded, but well-loved institution. These discussions and the results of the non-binding resolutions support the development of a comprehensive analysis of the building by the Town, the creation of a library building program, and an opportunity to look at the development of the town as a whole.
“This means that that the full condition of the building, the way the building is utilized, the programs that the library offers, access to the building and whether expanding the current building makes sound fiscal sense all need to be presented to the town.
“The next steps have already begun! Some of the current structure needs are being addressed. Outdoor lighting is getting an overhaul and work is being done on our lovely alcove area which will repair rot around the windows. It won’t give the library more space, but it will make that space a comfortable place to read, work and relax.
“In the next few months, we expect to see an independent engineering, safety and compliance study completed to determine the condition of the building. This will help answer the questions about whether an expansion or new building should or could be done. During the lead up to the town-wide vote there was one suggestion on how to best expand the current building, but without a complete professional plan, ideas remain only guesswork. What is needed now are the facts.”
On Jan. 23, Filley said Town Manager Rick Bates is circulating request for proposals to review the condition of the existing library. That will cost between $4,000 and $7,000, she said.
Podgajny’s goals, as he outlined Jan. 20, include reviewing existing program and the spaces at the library, and ultimately making a case statement for creating quality library services for Rockport.
He will revise the assignable use (e.g., meeting area, children services, lending area, technology) spaces section of the Building Program Statement with recommended square footage.
He said the work is “site agnostic” and will concentrate on a review of the program spaces and the scale and rationale for those spaces.
He plans to review all the existing project documents, of which there are many and represent several years of library analyses and proposals. (They are available for public review at the library’s website.)
He will meet with Scott Simons Architects for any needed clarifications of project background, meet with staff, and meet with stakeholders. He will review public library trends and history across Maine and the country, and examine local demographics.
He has also proposed several more phases of potential work.
“If consensus is reached that the process should continue based on the square footage of the revised building program statement a comparative 3D massing study of two currently discussed locations: (1) current library site and (2) in village site adjacent to Rockport Opera House should be undertaken,” he wrote in his proposal.
To the roomful of residents Jan. 20, Podgajny said he would start with ferreting out the values, principles and user experience of the library.
“The public library is the best window into the soul of the community,” he said.
A library is: “built on community values. Of course, you have to know your values and what you believe in,” he said.
A library is not, he said, a community center, which he characterized as something that presents ping-pong tables.
A library is, on the other hand, a cultural heart of the community, “where people have a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.... In the end the accountability is with everybody in the community but rests with the town and library committee.”
Library Committee member Stephanie Lash said that over the past several years, there have been many different efforts to get heads around what is right for the Rockport library. That included looking at many factors, and out of that a recommendation came from the committee, which was rejected by the public.
“It feels a lot like we are doing the same thing over again,” she said. “If we do decide to do another round, I think you need to understand, why did that fail?”
“My comments were mindful of the quality of work and exhaustion of process,” said Podgajny. “I know how much work goes into that.... This is a project that's been conceived as a partnership with taxpayers.”
He added: "I think it can be aspirational and an enormous amount of fun. Fun and energizing if people are civil. If they have an agenda, people should say what that agenda is. But if you are open minded then you can come out with something that is incredibly energizing."
Rockport resident Bob Baldwin, who was representing the Friends of Rockport, the group committed to keeping the library at its current location, told the room that the request for the June Town Meeting warrant measure had been submitted to the Select Board.
The group, he said, is “concerned the Library Committee has not honored the wish of the majority to keep the library at its current location.”
A Jan. 6 letter (see attached letter) from the Friends of Rockport said: “In order for the Select Board to follow the voters’ opinions, the town is restricted to renovating or improving the Rockport Library at 1 Limerock Street. Making improvements to the Rockport Library at 1 Limerock Street would cost considerably less than any other alternative.
“Moving the library off of the present site could result in the town losing title to the land at 1 Limerock Street. Keeping the library there ensures that the land will not be lost.”
The letter ended: “We don’t need to pay someone to tell us the obvious. It will cost too much money to build a library at a new site when the original site would work just fine.”
The Select Board will consider the proposed warrant article when it meets in February.