After watching the Jones Library’s presentation of the demolition/expansion project at the Town Council meeting last Monday, February 22, one Councilor declared, “What a thorough process!”
The video sure painted a pretty picture — bright cheery colors with highly-scripted fast-paced authoritative declarations, undoubtedly produced by the Financial Development Agency (FDA), the PR firm hired by the Jones that has garnered its sixth marketing contract with the Jones since 2014.
The Jones is selling their oversized proposal with the themes of social justice, sustainability, historic preservation, and fundraising, as well as the library’s assertion that a bigger library will result in downtown economic vitality. Yet, the presentation glossed over many hard truths concerning deficiencies in the planning process.
I recall the general public comments at the beginning of the Council meeting that evening. Three residents spoke emphatically about the pain of racism in our Town and the need for reparations.
This rings true! How can the Trustees tout social justice when, shockingly, there has not been one person from the BIPOC community on any library committee? In fact, I asked two past Jones Board Presidents and a person who was active with the Friends of the Jones for years, and they confirmed that they have never seen the BIPOC community represented.
And were you aware that the library has only garnered opinions from its current patrons, never engaging in community outreach and opinion gathering? And that only recently has the library committed to seriously examining their staff, materials, and programming through the lens of diversity? Most of its children’s programming, in particular, has been white European-oriented for ever so long.
Here are questions highlighting other important omissions or misrepresentations in the presentation:
1) Why plan a huge facility designed to serve 51,000 people?
The Planning Board estimates that the population of Amherst is about 18,000 full-time, non-student residents, and the Library states there are only 19,000 cardholders. The Trustees’ acceptance of the Director’s population figures has resulted in an oversized facility.
2) Is the financing for $35.8 million plus debt service realistic?
At least half of the $13.8 million state grant will be needed to cover the interest on the $22 million debt that taxpayers will have to repay. Accepting this proposal now, even though the Town has up to a year to decide, may jeopardize the school override and diminish funds for other needed capital projects as well as for operating expenses down the road.
3) Will there be additional funding for staffing, maintenance, and programing in a 65,000 square foot edifice?
No, the Town will not raise its current allocation to the Library, which currently covers about 75 percent of the library’s operating costs. The library goes into each fiscal year knowing that it must raise at least $100,000 in order to pay for its staff. If they fall short, the endowment draw must increase.
The Jones has not rehired four full-time retiree positions in the last two years and is using more part-time employees, who only receive sick leave, not health insurance, so full-time health and longevity benefits do not have to be paid. Director Sharry recently stated that if all three branches were open, she does not have enough enough funds to pay for the necessary staff.
Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam has repeatedly asked for more Trustee time to plan both short-term and long-term budget strategies, to no avail. Trustee Chair Austin Sarat simply does not put these issues on an agenda.
4) Why won’t the Trustees raise money for a prudent repair? After all, they own the building and the land.
Almost all other fundraising avenues available for the expansion would also be available in the repair option, including Massachusetts Historic Tax Credits, Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and Community Preservation Act grants, as well as donations from individuals and institutions.
5) Did you know that the MBLC [Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners] would have funded a proposal for renovating the entire library with no demolition, as long as there was an expansion of some size that met the criteria of its library building program?
The Trustees plan to demolish and thereby waste the entire 1993 handicapped accessible addition of highly embodied carbon materials, dumping 1,600 tons of debris into a landfill.
A professional space planner could have been hired years ago to analyze the possibilities for reorganizing the library. For example, if the third floor had been unlocked, cleaned out, and transformed for ESL services with the Goodwin Room for larger classes and the smaller rooms as tutoring spaces, teens could have long ago called the well-lit lower level space near the Woodbury Room their own.
6) Is enough of the historic Jones being preserved?
Trustees declare that more historic rooms will be open to the public in the original 1928 building once most walls are rearranged and several staircases destroyed. In fact, only a second-floor room, now used for technical services, will be open to the public. Some current public spaces on the first floor will house the unnecessary $400,000 book sorter and staff offices.
7) Is an expensive building the best way to provide services for residents?
For those of us supporting social justice, funds would be better spent on mobile library services, increased hours activity at the branches, strengthened after-school programs, more books and digital materials in world languages, as well as more laptops and hotspots to check out.
So where are we?
No wonder during the November 2018 election, the Jones Trustees received over 5,000 fewer votes. “A large percentage of voters cast no vote for any of the Library Trustee candidates. Of the possible 14,226 votes (six votes for each of the 2,371 voters), nearly 40 percent (5,533) went to no one or to individuals not on the ballot.”
Many more folks would have supported this project if they had confidence in the Trustees and if there has been true community outreach prior to finalizing the plan. There was ample time to engage the entire community since the first set of schematics were rejected by the state in October 2017 but there have been no public forums since then.
So residents are being marketed this expensive proposal by volunteer Kent Faerber, (Co-Chair of the Friends Capital Campaign Committee) and paid FDA consultants Matt Blumenfeld and his business colleague and wife, Claudia Canale-Parola.
All three are on the Steering Committee of the Amherst Forward PAC. Doesn’t this seem like a conflict of interest? The PAC is currently encouraging their members to blitz Councilors to support the proposal that two of their leadership team are being paid to promote.
The relationship between the Trustees and many residents has collapsed into a meshugaas of Machiavelli and McLuhan. Trust in our town is broken and can’t be fixed with glitzy presentations deflecting reality’s true vision.
Terry S. Johnson is a retired Amherst teacher, blossoming poet, and a lifelong student of art, architecture, history, and languages.