On May 18, 2023

RFL plans $1.7 million renovation

By Polly Mikula

The Rutland Free Library (RFL) has reinvigorated renovation plans to make the library (in its current location) more user-friendly, accessible and meet modern needs. And it hopes to get $500,000 — about a third of the total project cost —from the state through Federal ARPA funds set aside for libraries. 

RFL recently submitted a needs assessment to the state Department of Libraries (VTLIB) as a first step toward securing a major grant for renovations to the city-owned building at 10 Court Street. VTLIB is expecting $26.5 million in ARPA funds to be distributed for library building projects around the state. As a large public library, by Vermont standards, RFL is eligible for a share of $16.4 million of that money (a separate $10 million grant is reserved for libraries in smaller towns and more rural areas). VTLIB has indicated to RFL that it will be happy to consider proposals in the $250K-$500K range. 

On Monday, May 15, the Rutland Free Library (RFL) formally asked the City of Rutland Board of Aldermen to pay $18,000 for initial planning costs: $13,000 for architectural and $5,000 engineering. 

“We have engaged with two local companies – NBF Architects and Engineering Services of Vermont – to provide the necessary architectural plans, scope of work, and budget estimates,” wrote RFL Director Randal Smathers in a news release Monday. “A city contribution will help show broad-based community support for the application when we do get to the approval stage for the grant in August.”

The Aldermen referred the request to the Finance Committee.

“It is what I expected,” Smathers told the Mountain Times. “I had actually started the request at the Finance Committee level, and they advised me just to take it to the board last night, as a first step. ”

The library has carefully set aside money for many years for such future capital needs and currently has “just under a million and a half dollars invested fairly cautiously in the stock market,” Smathers said. “We have always targeted that money for a capital campaign to work on this building… while we would need to keep some of that as operating capital for emergencies, we’re looking at a starting point of spending between $1 million and $1.2 million out of that fund. Plus any donations we could get from a capital campaign, so $1.7 (million)  is a pretty fair place to start as an estimate for how much we’ll be spending overall,” Randal said, noting: “Inflation has eaten substantially into this — $1.5 million is not going to go as far as it would have four or five years ago when we’re talking about this for the first time…we’re really going to have to get creative with every dollar.”

An important key to receiving the federal funds is improving broadband access to electronic records, particularly medical records, during another pandemic or similar emergency.

“The main one is they want to see improved access to computerized records — specifically medical records,” Smathers explained. “They identified a problem that libraries can help with, which is to access to their medical records which other health care and government offices may be shut down — all the government offices were for a big chunk of the pandemic.” 

ADA compliance is another key component. 

The new proposal essentially turns the building around, putting the main – and fully ADA compliant — entrance at the east end of the building (facing Killlington), and turning the original 1868 structure (current main entrance) into a dedicated children’s library. 

“There is 30 inches of good Vermont granite between the 1868 block and the renovated part with two doorways. So as far as a sound barrier, it’s just such a natural idea,” Smathers said.

That portion of the building also leads up to the Fox Room, which hosts community events. “Honestly about 80% – 90% of our events that use the Fox Room are kids events anyway,” he said.

“We’ve also looked at how to solve some other basic problems like the baby changing restroom is in the opposite end of the building from the children’s area, just a whole a whole number of things,” Smathers added. “In fact, we had identified seven things that we wanted to fix architecturally, just to make it a better library.”

Those plans and additional ideas from the public will be presented soon, Smathers noted.

“My very next step is to try to put together an ad hoc committee, outside of our board members — interested committee members, people with some experience… to just start trying to talk through what’s possible … I’ve got a board meeting coming up tomorrow night, when I will be reaching out to the board asking for their suggestions — who they know that might be interested or excited about this opportunity,” he told the Mountain Times, Tuesday, May 16. 

“A really important step in designing a public building is making something the public wants,” he added.

Renovation stops and starts

It’s been 35 years since any substantive work has been done on the library building. 

“Looking back to 1988… things have just changed so much,” Smathers said. 

“You know, I’m into my 11th year now. And I’ve been working on building renovations more or less non stop since I got here,” he noted. “We’ve had a series of kind of stops and starts on this. Like a decade ago, we had been looking at renovating this building and the bill came in at $7.4 to $11.5 million — that was to do a complete top to bottom renovation — but that was way too much money. And so we kind of backed off and we were working with NBF on coming up with a much more modest renovation that would have cost about $1.5 million.”

Then the CSJ thing popped up and we put all our energy into that. But as a fallback, I never stopped thinking ‘okay, if we do wind up saying here, what do we do?’ 

“And then in the conversations around moving to CSJ, we heard from a huge number of people that just don’t like our current building. In asking for feedback on CSJ, we got feedback on this building… what we heard very clearly was a bunch of people wanted us to stay in downtown, because they view us as a landmark. Then another bunch of people (that were most of our users) have really specific complaints about this building,” he explained. “The most common one I get is it’s the single most noisy library anybody’s ever been in. And I think that’s probably accurate. We take the kids off into the Fox Room, and we get them all excited in their program and then the program ends and they come downstairs, but they’re really excited and they’re making noise because they’re kids and they’re having fun in their learning. And that’s fabulous. But there’s no separation between the kids area and where somebody’s sitting trying to work on seriously at a computer or in a quiet study space.”

Smathers hopes the new renovation will receive the support it needs to get started. First with a positive recommendation from the Finance committee and subsequent approval from the board of Alderman; then approval of the grant.

The project is in the early design phase, but the federal funds will require a completed proposal by Aug. 31 of this year, (with a preliminary completed project date of Dec. 31, 2026) so the library is also going full speed ahead. 

Unlike other renovation plans over the past decade, this time Smathers is confident a plan will move forward. “It’s just a matter of getting the funding and getting the city approval,” he said. “We’ll do something, that’s my promise. We will do something within the next five years.”

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