This column also appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
It’s not easy to change your mind in public. For the leaders of a well respected, much appreciated public library who have invested years developing and promoting major renovation plans, it must be especially hard.
But when circumstances change, when the facts change, then hopes and plans must change, too. At the Jones Library, that time has come.
In the years since the plans to renovate this library were first proposed, we have seen a change in the way all libraries collect, store and make information available to their customers. The COVID pandemic rapidly accelerated that change and the Jones Library has responded, remotely serving students and others studying, working, and simply staying at home. The distant future of information technology has arrived early, affecting the use and thus the design of every library. The design for the demolition and renovation of the Jones is not very old, but those changes in behavior require another look at that design.
In just the last year, an unfamiliar old word has entered every budgeting activity: inflation. It is now affecting every element of the demolition and rebuilding of the Jones. We hope the current inflation will not remain high but we know that it will be with us for years.
Last month the professional planners of the Jones delivered projections of huge construction cost increases to the board. After receiving their dismal warnings, the one person who seemed to accept the impossibility of proceeding as planned was its budget committee chair. The rest of the leadership resolved to stay the course. They say that fundraising will rise to meet those challenges, and they ask their fundraisers to do more. But inflation and its evil partner, uncertainty, make fundraising much harder. Every nonprofit fundraiser knows that, though few dare to admit it.
Inflation raises wages as well as prices, but growth in personal income always lags behind the jump in prices. That reality impacts everyone. Wealthy people find that the stock market decline this year has reduced the portfolios from which their large gifts must come. While they now have less, the charities they support are asking for more. And for the average person, the increase in their expenses of daily living reduces their ability to make the important smaller donations that, collectively, mean so much to a place like the Jones.
The Jones has already received some charitable gifts and it will receive more, as well as grants from government entities, but the funds in hand and the future grants and charitable gifts simply cannot be expected, in this difficult economy, to bridge the gap that will remain and seems likely to grow. The taxpayers of Amherst will be asked to make up the difference.
Amherst is planning four major capital investments now. In addition to the library, the people want a new school, fire house, and department of public works complex. Because the library is at the top of the list, its added expense affects not only itself, but the other three projects as well. What has been spent so far cannot be recovered. What can be done, what must be done is to decide to reevaluate what Amherst expects from its library and what it can afford. Then it must ask for a design that meets those expectations. It’s never too late to do the right thing.
Ken Rosenthal lives on Sunset Avenue in Amherst. He was Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals and of the former Development and Industrial Commission, and was a member of the Select Committee on Goals for Amherst.