ROCKPORT — Following a lengthy discussion, the Rockport Select Board agreed Monday evening, Aug. 10, to pick up the speed in determining next steps for relocating the town’s public library. The town is looking for a temporary space to house 32,000 books, programs and staff for what could be a three-year period.
“We need to move forward in a timely manner,” said board member Tracy Murphy, concluding a 45-minute conversation about potential sites.
The details, including lease terms, remain up in the air, however, as Town Manager Rick Bates, Public Works Director Mike Young, and Interim Library Director Ben Blackmon continue to investigate real estate.
At Monday’s meeting, Bates outlined several potential scenarios, which include the current home of Midcoast Medicine, at 195 Union Street; the former home of book publisher International Marine, at 485 Commercial Street (Route 1); and the former home of Fuller Chevrolet, also on Commercial Street, near the intersection of Pascal Avenue.
All three, however, have their own extenuating circumstances, precluding any immediate decisions on the part of town leaders.
Ideally, the library demands at least 5,000 square feet of temporary space, the board agreed.
Some have questioned whether the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) gallery, which is across the street from the library, is an appropriate spot; however, Select Board Chairman William Chapman said after the meeting that the CMCA building, which is Rockport’s original firehouse and once housed town office functions, is not on the list because the nonprofit that owns the building wants to sell, not lease, it.
CMCA is in the process of building a new gallery in downtown Rockland.
Murphy said at the end of Monday’s discussion that the board should remain open to emergency meetings in order to make quick decisions, if necessary.
The search for temporary library space follows last month’s vote by the board to move books, program and staff from the existing library in Rockport Village to different quarters while the town ultimately decides if it wants to tear down and build a new library — on the current site, or elsewhere — or renovate and expand the existing building.
It is a question that has been on the table for several years, but the push for resolution has hastened this summer. Town selectmen are acting on the June release of an engineer’s report which cited deteriorating building conditions and the possibility of mold in its walls.
The Brewer-based CES, Inc., had been hired April 16 by the town of Rockport to evaluate the building and outline limitations to its potential expansion. The town contracted with CES for $9,800, and engineers reviewed the building’s existing conditions, its heating and ventilation systems, construction, public accessibility and its safety issues.
As well, the Library Committee had commissioned a programmatic study, results of which were also released in June by its author, Portland library consultant Steve Podgajny. His study recommended that Rockport increase its library size from 3,300 square feet to 9,264 square feet in order to create a “first rate public library.”
The Rockport Public Library debate
In 2013, the Library Committee discussed 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).
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.
Planning for the library’s future became a lively issue in a town whose population is approximately 3,300, and whose residents are passionate about their public facility.
Some citizens have adamantly supported the RES site, while others just as adamantly advocate that it remain in its current location on the corner of Russell Ave. and Union Street.
Last November, 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 defeated a motion, 1,065 to 786, to “primarily consider the former Rockport Elementary School site” as a location for a proposed 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 January, the Library Committee voted 4 to 1 to hire Portland Public Library’s Executive Director Steve Podgajny to study Rockport’s library, specifically its programs and spaces.
In February, the group Friends of Rockport asked the Rockport Select Board to include a question on the June municipal warrant asking: “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.”
Voting unanimously Feb. 9, the Select Board denied a request from Rockport citizen David Berry to place the question on the warrant, agreeing that it was not necessary at that given time, given the two studies underway. The proposal was characterized as potentially causing more unnecessary friction in a town that has seen much recent acrimony over the future of the library’s location.
By refusing to put the article on the ballot, the Friends of Rockport were left with one avenue to get the question before voters — petitioning the town.
In early April, Friends of the Library were knocking on doors throughout Rockport seeking signatures on a petition that would get the question onto the June 2015 warrant.
They subsequently decided to hold off on that request until the two studies were completed.
The Select Board’s July decision to move the library is largely in deference to the wellbeing of library staff, as well as the collection, relative to the possibility of mold.
At Monday’s meeting, board members discussed the cost of leasing non-municipal space, estimating a price tag of $40,000 to $80,000. Bates said the first year alone will cost more than $100,000, given relocation and refitting expenses, as well as lease costs.
Some citizens at the meeting questioned the wisdom of moving the library, as opposed to fixing the existing construction problems.
“Is the mold problem the primary reason for all this rush to move,” asked Rockport citizen Sally Cook.
“That was probably the largest concern,” replied board Chairman William Chapman. “The other concern was the condition of the building.”
“If mold is not a problem, could some of the repairs be started,” asked Cook.
“We don’t know how far into the building it has invaded because of the condition of those walls,” said Chapman.
“We are not going to pour money into something that will be need to be torn down,” said Murphy.
Cook questioned whether the situation would benefit from a professional air quality study.
“It wasn’t mold on its own,” said Bates. “A number of things were discussed. The possibility of us putting $40,000 to $50,000 [into the building] and repeat that next year for a building we are more than likely to tear down to meet code seemed the direction everyone was going. Why are we spending all that money, and why not just move, was the consensus.”
“Let’s stop sinking money into it, like RES,” said Chapman, who was referencing the 2007 decision to vacate Rockport Elementary School, and eventually tear it down, partly due to mold infiltrating one section of that former West Street school.
“If we open up walls and they are bad, it is irresponsible of me not to get them [library staff] out of there in a timely manner,” said Murphy.
Rockport will most likely have to wait until November, the board agreed, before moving its collection anywhere.
Bates reported to the board Monday evening that Midcoast Medicine was planning to vacate its Union Street building, space that would be “becoming available,” he said.
“Mike and I went over and met with owners of the building,” he said. “They are still trying to figure out what to do, but it would require some work and they are not sure what they are going to do.... They do not think another medical practice is going to go in there.”
The Fuller Chevrolet space offers 9,000 square feet, but some of it is inappropriate, considering dampness, the board was told.
As for 485 Commercial Street, the former offices of International Marine on Route 1, owners there are waiting until October before deciding whether a lease with the town is a viable option. That office building is on the market now for $899.000.
Board member Owen Casas questioned the slow progress on finding an appropriate location.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said.
Town Manager Bates responded, “I’d rather be correct than quick.”
Former Library Committee member Kathleen Meil urged the board to produce more details, on a faster schedule.
“I feel like we are doing a window shopping now,” she said.
Library Committee member Stephanie Lash requested a rough estimate of the rental costs.
Bates said that lease costs will run between $40,000 to $80,000.
Lash asked whether that estimate had been balanced against the mediation of the existing building.
She was told that the decision had been made to relocate the library.
In the end, the board agreed more details are necessary, but targeted the move to occur sometime in November. Murphy suggested the Library Committee begin “chewing on logistics,” which include estimates of necessary shelving, as well as moving costs and requirements.
The Select Board and the Library Committee are holding a joint workshop Sept. 10 to talk about the future of the Rockport Public Library.
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