After Passing on Tidyman’s, Library Seeks Other Downtown Options

By Beacon Staff

It’s clear that people want the Flathead County Library to stay in downtown Kalispell. But following a Dec. 5 library board vote denying a proposal to move into the abandoned Tidyman’s building, it’s unclear at the moment how the library will go about doing it.

The Flathead County Library Board of Trustees voted 3-2 against a proposal from WM Capital Group to purchase the Tidyman’s grocery store property, remodel the building into a library and sell it to the Flathead County Libraries system. The board based its decision on both financial and environmental concerns, said Jerry Hanson, the board chairman. Hanson cast one of the three dissenting votes along with Kala Lougheed and Anne Moran. Dave Hilde and Laura Long voted in favor.

“There were too many unanswered questions,” Hanson said. “By adding up all the negatives, we just felt overwhelmingly that this was an opportunity that we wanted to take a pass on. I don’t think anyone can say we reached this conclusion lightly.”

The main branch of the Flathead County Libraries system is searching for a new home in light of growing needs for more space and parking. The library leases its current location from School District 5. The space is only 23,250 square feet and, based on a feasibility study by CTA Architects, the library would like to have about 55,000 square feet. Tidyman’s is 52,000. Hanson expects to pay around $18 million, with some money possibly coming from private investors but the bulk coming from bonds.

Hanson said the board did not feel comfortable with WM Capital’s proposed selling price, nor did it like the proposal’s lack of certainty regarding what would happen with the parking lot. Calling the proposal an “unpalatable situation,” Hanson said he believes the board will be able to find a more suitable fit, though there are currently no other options in the downtown area.

The big issue in the board’s decision was concern over contaminants in the site’s soil. Back when Burlington Northern Railroad owned the area, Hanson said, three large petroleum storage units leaked oil into the ground in large quantities. The Department of Quality, he said, indicated to the board that despite previous cleanup efforts, there could be existing residue in the ground and if the library owned the location it could ultimately be responsible for further cleanup.

“We felt it would be inappropriate for us to take on that liability,” Hanson said. “We had no certainty that it wouldn’t come back to bite us.”

There seems to be a lack of agreement on the details of the pollution. Hilde, one of the two board members who approved the location, downplayed the environmental problems, saying that DEQ never expressed significant concern nor has the current owner, the Spokane Investment Group. The cleanup that has already occurred, from what Hilde understands, should be sufficient. The site was clean enough for a grocery store to move in, he pointed out. Nevertheless, Hilde said if there is concern over the issue, the library could take over the existing insurance plan on the site that runs until 2014 and costs $7,500 per year.

“My feeling is that the environmental problem was minimal,” Hilde said. “They’ve used the excuse that it’s environmental. But I don’t think it’s that big of a problem for the taxpayers.”

An offer from Flathead Valley Community College to sell the library a piece of land is still on the board, Hanson said. But the board would prefer to find an existing space closer to downtown. The hard part is finding another large location near or in downtown. Hilde isn’t sure if that’s possible and he hopes the board will reconsider the Tidyman’s property.

“We have never have been able to find, in the two and a half years I’ve been on the board, another location as good as Tidyman’s,” Hilde said. “I would hope we could go back and reanalyze the situation.”

Joe Unterreiner, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce president, said the chamber board pushed for the Tidyman’s location because it is the only option in the downtown vicinity and it meets all of the library’s stated requirements. It will be very hard to find another spot as good as Tidyman’s, he said.

“At the end of the day,” Unterreiner said, “they still need 50 to 60 thousand square feet and this site still meets that. From the point of view of our board of directors, that site is a great fit to meet the requirements for Flathead Valley.”

Hanson remains optimistic, saying just because there aren’t any available locations now, doesn’t mean that will be case a year from now. There’s no hurry, he said.

“I don’t think the board feels that we’re under any pressure to act quickly,” Hanson said. “We’ll be steadily and continuously working to address our needs.”