Library Trustees Seek Plan B Clarity. Details Of $1M Federal Grant Award Emerge



Jones Library News Highlights For The Week Of April 24, 2023

Application Describes $1M Matching Grant for Humanities Center On Jones Library Lower Level
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has announced that the Jones Library is receiving an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant of $1 million, the largest of 260 NEH grants awarded across the U.S. in April 2023.  The proposal is to build a $5 million Humanities Center on the lower level of the Jones Library, a concept that has received little discussion in meetings of the Board of Trustees and the Jones Library Building Committee which is overseeing the $46.4 million library renovation-expansion project.  The original grant application which has been provided to the Amherst Indy by Library Director Sharon Sharry fills in some of the blanks.

The application, prepared by Sharry and Capital Campaign Manager Ginny Hamilton, describes a $5 million construction program to build a Humanities Center that will “highlight artifacts of Amherst history that are representative of our diverse population, create engaging exhibits that make local history artifacts more visible and accessible and provide space for programs that bring the community together.”

The center, to be located on the ground floor, will encompass a climate-controlled Special Collections area, a permanent Civil War Tablets space, and a new Burnett Art Gallery.  The Humanities Center purports to address a shortage of space in Amherst where community groups can hold programs.  Exhibit and program space will be accessible after regular library hours, and partner organizations such as Ancestral Bridges and the Emily Dickinson Museum will use a key-card system for access on evenings and Sundays.

Heart of the proposed Humanities Center on the Jones Library Ground Level. Source: Jones Library

While the application emphasizes how the Humanities Center will dovetail with the planned renovation-expansion, it is unclear whether the federal award is contingent on the building project proving affordable and being carried to completion.  Construction cost estimates obtained in August 2022 projected the renovation-expansion to cost $7 – $13 million more than the appropriation that the Amherst Town Council approved in April 2021.  In May the Jones Library Building Committee will receive an updated cost estimate which is expected to provide insight into whether the project remains economically viable.  The NEH grant and other federal and state awards totaling more than $2 million would be credited to the Capital Campaign’s fundraising goal but will not reduce the projected $24 million of Amherst tax dollars over twenty years required for the project.

The four NEH grant application review panelists were unanimous in their praise of the 91-page grant application.  All four rated the project “excellent.”

The NEH has informed the Jones Library of several policies and conditions that must be met before grant funds can be released.  Among the requirements are compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.  This entails submitting to a review of the effects of construction on the Jones Library building which is listed in the state and national registries of historic properties.  The NEH advises that the Section 106 review process may take between several months to a year.

Library Leaders Concerned That Decisionmakers ‘Not on the Same Page’ Regarding Plan B
A vigorous discussion began at the April 24 meeting of the Jones Library Budget Committee and spilled over to the Buildings and Facilities Committee meeting the following day. At issue were differing opinions of the scope and schedule for ‘Plan B’, the designation describing repairs and improvements to be made to the library if ‘Plan A’ – the full renovation-expansion of the building – proves too costly to execute.

Buildings and Facilities Chair Alex Lefebvre summarized Plan B work to date, explaining that an internal working group made up of library and town staff has been looking into addressing the library building’s most urgent repairs.

The group “has identified the HVAC system as the most pressing issue and determined that the next step is to hire an engineer to develop the solution,” she said.  They have asked that this process take place over the summer after an updated construction cost estimate for Plan A has been received and evaluated for feasibility.

However, Library Director Sharon Sharry sees disagreement on the scope of Plan B work and suggested that the Town Manager needs to provide some clarity.

“What Town Council understands is different from what the Trustees understand, is different from what’s in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), and that’s different from what Paul [Town Manager Paul Bockelman] and his staff are working on,” she said.

The MOA stipulates that the Library Trustees will spend $1.8 million on building repairs within three years if Plan A is withdrawn. 

Sharry views Plan B as “starting with the HVAC and then the roof and eventually the atrium.”  She described Town Hall’s view as wanting “to get done as little as possible so that the roof doesn’t cave in.” That way, she said, “the [Town’s] other projects can rise to the top and we will go to the bottom of the list, and that’s totally fair.”

Lefebvre offered a different interpretation of Plan B. “What I heard from Town Council […] or what I heard from the Finance Committee was our plan B was the Western Builders quote and it’s a matter of how we execute it.”  She was referring to a full set of repairs and improvements catalogued by Western Builders of Granby in a 2017 report and estimated by Kuhn Riddle Architects of Amherst in 2020 to cost between $14.4 million and $16.8 million.

Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam voiced concern that differing opinions of the scope of Plan B could delay the Trustees in meeting their $1.8 million financial obligation should it become the direction that the Town decides to take.  He pointed out that applying for a low-interest loan from MassDevelopment, a state agency that supports nonprofits, would require advanced preparation of an application from someone with detailed knowledge of the building project.  He likened the loan application to grant applications that the Library Capital Campaign has developed.

Sharry summed up her opinion. “We the trustees, the staff, Town Council, we need to know what’s going on in the Town Manager’s mind about what plan B is.”

Optimistic Library Director Describes How Plan A Will Be Funded
The Budget Committee agreed that regardless of whether the Town pursues Plan A or Plan B, it will likely be necessary for the Jones Library Trustees to seek a loan from MassDevelopment.

The Plan B loan would cover the Library’s $1.8 million financial obligation for repairs as outlined in the MOA.  MassDevelopment has said that its minimum loan size is $1.25 million.

Plan A financing, as laid out by Sharry, would also require support from MassDevelopment, and potentially from People’s Bank.  With the addition of the $1 million Humanities Center grant from the federal government, the Capital Campaign is nearing what Sharry has described as its goal of raising $7 million by November.

Jones Library describes a $7 million fundraising goal by November 2023. Source

In February 2024, after a construction bid has been accepted, the Town would borrow the full amount of the project cost, currently estimated to be $9.4 million over budget.  Increasing the Town’s borrowing authorization would require approval by two-thirds of the 13-member Town Council. Sharry envisions the Capital Campaign continuing to raise money until July 2026 when the renovation and expansion work is complete.  With the Town share of the project being limited to $15.8 million by a 2022 MOA, the Library Trustees would calculate what they owe the Town at that point, and borrow what is needed to pay it.

“So we would fill out the paperwork. MassDevelopment would issue a bond. People’s Bank would buy the bond. The library would get a lower interest rate and we would be paying the loan back over a period of time. I’m not sure how long that time is — it depends on how much we owe and all of that. So that’s most likely the plan that’s going to happen,” Sharry said.

“Plan B is not going to happen,” she predicted. “Plan A is going to happen after all of these millions of dollars are falling from the federal government and the state government, as well as local donors. It would be crazy for Plan A not to go forward, depending on the most recent cost estimate that will come at the end of May.”

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4 thoughts on “Library Trustees Seek Plan B Clarity. Details Of $1M Federal Grant Award Emerge

  1. Now we learn:

    “… [T]he Jones Library is receiving an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant of $1 million, the largest of 260 NEH grants awarded across the U.S. in April 2023. The proposal is to build a $5 million Humanities Center on the lower level of the Jones….”

    And so we ask:

    From where will this additional $4 million (or more, given the precedent for underestimating these costs) come?

    “Exhibit and program space will be accessible after regular library hours, and partner organizations such as … the Emily Dickinson Museum will use a key-card system for access on evenings and Sundays.”

    Has anyone proposed:

    The (well-endowed, tax-exempt) owners of the E. D. Museum?

  2. Individuals have contributed gifts totaling $1.3 million according to the April 1 Capital Campaign Report. Another $1.0 million in gift intentions has been pledged.

    However, the MOA states that the Library is to turn over to the Town Treasurer all donations when received, less reasonable fundraising expenses. To date, $500,000 has been remitted to the Town, and fundraising expenses have totaled $171,146.

  3. I was trying to find out more about the NEH Challenge Grant and how sure this $1m donation was and I came across this article by Jeff Lee from April 2023. Right now, the Town Council and its Finance Committee are considering whether to authorize $46.1 million in borrowing to pay for the Library project,. We haven’t yet seen data on how much is projected to be borrowed, debt projections on all of the borrowings, who is responsible for the debt service and for how long, when the library will hand over their share, when the MBLC payments will come in, etc. To claim that the Town is only paying $15.8 million toward this project is not at all accurate. At my rough estimations, and in the absence of financial information from the Town’s leadership, it looks like the $15.8m loan will cost over $25m, the $1m CPA loan will cost almost $1.3m, and the short term borrowings to cover the library and MBLC’s shares during construction will cost the Town somewhere in the region of $3 million. And the Town is also on the hook for the ~$300,000 in fundraising expenses of the Capital Campaign so add another chunk for that.
    The fact that the Library Director says they would have to take out a Mass Development loan to pay $1.8 million in the case of a pivot to Plan B/priority repairs is truly shocking. Do they really not have enough money to even pay $1.8m?

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