Libraries Left in Limbo

By Beacon Staff

While opportunities for new libraries in Kalispell and Bigfork were recently rejected, a possible new uptown location in Columbia Falls is a bright spot in what has been an otherwise tumultuous few months for the county library system.

Last December, the library board voted to deny a proposal to move the Kalispell library into the abandoned Tidyman’s building downtown, and then in March, Bigfork voters denied a combined school and library bond for the second time in a matter of months. Both branches have been left in flux, searching for other possible locations.

So when the First Best Place Task Force, a Columbia Falls community group, recently approached the library board about joining efforts to purchase the old First Citizens Bank property on Nucleus Avenue, it seemed a fortuitous chance.

“I think a real cheerful, bright spot for us right now is what’s going on in Columbia Falls,” library board Chairman Jerry Hanson said. “I’m excited about the potential there and think it’s an extremely attractive opportunity.”

The library board and Columbia Falls Library Association have agreed to put a combined $167,000 toward the purchase of the old bank and to help the task force with further fundraising, Kim Crowley, the county library director, said. The planned closing date for the property is June 1.

If all goes through, the building located at the heart of the uptown district would become a home for educational programs, local historical displays, community meeting rooms and the city library. The undeveloped portion of the lot would become a city park. Hopefully, the partners say, the remodel would act as a boon for economic growth along Nucleus Avenue and a draw for tourists traveling along US Highway 93 and locals alike.

“Libraries create a lot of foot traffic, so they can contribute pretty significantly to economic development,” Crowley said. “Last year, Columbia Falls had 32,300 people visit the library. It’s normal with a new building or a remodel to see those numbers double in the first year.”

The bank building has about the same square footage of the current library building, but along with its ideal downtown location would also be a better-suited space for library activities, Crowley said. The present location in the city hall building was originally built as an employee gym and event hall for the Anaconda Aluminum Plant. It’s airy and spacious with arching wood ceilings, but has no indoor or outdoor space for community programs or meetings.

The move would also mean a significant financial leap for the Columbia Falls library, which occupies the city hall building free of rent, maintenance or utility costs. If the library moves, donors have offered to cover maintenance and utility fees for the first six months while the library foundation looks for alternative funding, such as an endowment, Crowley said.

And if funding efforts fail, she said, Glacier Bank, the property’s current owner, has agreed to buy the building and land back in three years at the same price plus improvement costs.

While a partnership is proving economical and fortuitous in Columbia Falls, it’s a failed joint venture that’s left the county’s Bigfork branch continuing its search for a viable home.

In the spring of 2007 Flathead County proposed a new library for Bigfork at the Potoczny Baseball Field near the post office. The project carried a million-dollar-plus price tag, and was rejected. The Bigfork School Board later approached the library administration about a combined $11-million bond that would have paid for renovation and expansion of the town’s high school, and a new, attached 4,800-square-foot library. But voters rejected it, first in the fall and then later this spring.

“School bonds have failed now in Somers, Whitefish and Bigfork twice,” Hanson said. “I think schools and libraries are in a similar category, and I’d be a little nervous to take a bond forward right now. We have to be very careful fiscally.”

A study of the library system’s needs in 2003 recommended a new 4,000-square-foot library in Bigfork. The existing library is 1,440 square foot and is located in the Bigfork Museum of Art and History in downtown Bigfork, where it lacks parking and space. The library administration and board are searching for yet another possible location, hopefully just outside of the busy downtown village area.

Kalispell’s library is left in a similar limbo. It’s clear that people want the library to stay in downtown. But following a December board vote denying a proposal to move into the abandoned Tidyman’s building – its best option to date – it’s unclear how the library will remain centrally located.

Tidyman’s is still a possibility, Hanson said, if another government entity would remediate contaminants in the site’s soil and cost concerns were resolved. The group is in the process of evaluating other locations and reassessing its original needs appraisal.

“I think it always makes sense to take a reality check and see if what is proposed is really what’s needed,” Stewart Harvey, the library foundation director, said. “Stepping back and asking those questions lets the public know we’re trying to achieve our goals in the most economic way we can.”

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