In a unanimous vote, the Board of Finance this week approved a $5.4 million dollar bond authorization for the renovation of the Blackstone Memorial Library. The BOF recommended the RTM do so as well.
In August, the BOF heard detailed plans from library officials on plans and funding for the library, plans that will bring the iconic 1896 library into the 21st century. The library provides a rich variety of resources for town residents, including computer services. Plans call for a 2,000-square-foot addition on the ground floor, and reconfiguration of many interior spaces throughout the library. The distinctive front entrance and steps will remain the same.
The BOF has not voted on the library project until now because, as BOF Chair Joseph Mooney put it in August, nobody knew how the state planned to solve its budget problems. “Until the state comes up with a budget and everybody knows where they are, towns are declining to make any commitment. And that is reasonable.”
At the time, the library’s trustees and its director, Karen Jensen, (pictured) said they understood. But they wanted to schedule a meeting with the BOF because library officials wanted to let the BOF know they were under a tight deadline with regard to a $1 million grant. Library officials also presented their plans to the RTM.
On Monday, library officials returned to the community room of the firehouse to participate in a special BOF meeting called to discuss the Blackstone project.
A lot has changed since August. For one thing the state now has a budget. For another, on Nov. 29, the state’s Bond Commission awarded $30.7 million toward the renovation of the Walsh school and the reconstruction of the Board of Education’s (BOE) central office. Walsh was one of the schools on the state’s priority list.
Blackstone Awarded $1 Million Grant With Conditions
The Blackstone has been awarded a $1 million state library grant, but to get the $1 million grant the library must have all its funds in place by March 1, 2018. This means the funds from various places must be accounted for and committed to the library project. Otherwise, the $1 million state library grant will be lost.
In addition, the library has launched a campaign to raise donations and pledges toward its $800,000 goal. Nearly 500 members of the community have contributed funds and the Branford Community Foundation has pledged to match individual gifts in amounts up to $1,000 for a total match of $100,000, Jensen said
Outside the library stands the library’s “thermometer,” which keeps track of its $800,000 goal. The building renovation campaign has now reached $650,000 – 80 percent toward its goal of $800,000. With a little help from others over this holiday season it is likely to get there.
At the BOF meeting, Town Finance director Jim Finch reviewed the history for the board. He explained that while the BOF approved funding for the Walsh Intermediate School and the Community House renovation, it had wisely “deferred action” on other projects “until we had a clearer sense of the impact of the state budget on Branford’s operating budget and capital needs.”
State Funding For Walsh Opens Other Doors
Finch said the town remains “cautious given the state’s continued budgetary weakness and long term liabilities.” However, after the BOF’s last meeting in November, he said the town learned that the state had in fact approved $30.7 million in funding for the Walsh middle school. This approval, he said, “provides considerable ballast to move forward with the (library) project and to approach previously unfulfilled capital requests.”
Board members asked several questions.
Finch also noted that town maintains reserves in the general fund as well as other funds, which “under the right conditions can be used to positively impact our efforts.”
Until last night’s numbers came in, the overall cost of the Blackstone project was put at $4.8 million. At the BOF meeting this week, the cost came in at $5.2 million.
Finch (pictured next to First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove) explained that additional funds were factored in just in case the $800,000 goal is not reached by the March deadline. In addition the library needs to put in a new elevator.
The project would bring the library up to 21st century speed, but keep the building’s historic exterior intact.
After the BOF meeting, Jensen told the Eagle, “We are grateful for the decision by the Board of Finance to approve our request for funding. The success of this request reflects the excellent work done by the library trustees, friends, project planning group, and campaign committee. Ultimately, the renovation project will ensure that the library continues to serve as a crucial resource for the Branford community in the decades to come.”
The RTM is expected to vote on the Blackstone project in February and if approved, the renovation of the library would begin this spring. The library will remain open during the renovation.