Library Bogged Down by Bureaucracy

By Kellyn Brown

The Flathead County Library Board of Trustees met last month and once again failed to make a decision, or even indicate a possible plan, on the future of the Kalispell library. Meanwhile, the abandoned Tidyman’s grocery store near downtown here continues to rot, its 52,000 square feet eager for books – or anything else to take its mind off the weeds, occasional graffiti and that feeling of being blight-stricken.

And now the library board has disintegrated, with two members quitting after another failed to be reappointed by the Flathead County Commission, leaving four of five positions unfilled. Another board member had already quit. The future of Kalispell’s library is murky at best.

Why exactly the board, before it fell apart, voted against acquiring the Tidyman’s property last December is disagreed upon. The building fits the criteria of what library officials had hoped to find in size and, especially, in location near the city’s urban core. And it doesn’t appear that there is a bidding war for the former grocery store, which may be the biggest waste of prime real estate in the entire city.

Yet just as quickly as the potential library move gained momentum, it sputtered. It was panned as too expensive, even though a more economical alternative has yet to be suggested. But the price tag was less of a concern than what the board cited as its main deterrent in voting against Tidymans: contaminated dirt.

At the time, the three dissenting board members – the three who left the board earlier this month – said they were leery about contaminants that leaked into the site’s soil when Burlington Northern Railroad owned the property years ago. That argument is dubious at best, which the other two board members pointed out. After all, the site was clean enough to sell groceries.

At the last board meeting before the shakeup, discussion turned to whether the board has been spending too much time debating the future of the Kalispell library, which outgrew its building long ago, while neglecting other branches. The board’s chairman said, “I don’t know how the committee can function effectively if they focus all their attention on the Kalispell library.”

That theory would hold buckets more water if the board had come up with some sort of plan for the county’s largest library over the previous months instead of just waiting for a serendipitous solution to arise.

And, to be sure, not all the blame can be placed on the board. It rightly pointed out that the “city of Kalispell has not stepped up in any meaningful way.” In contrast, city governments and community groups in Whitefish and, more recently, Columbia Falls have reached out to ensure that their respective branches prospered.

But the fact remains that the library board, gridlocked at first and now disbanded, has stalled a plan that would have had a third party purchase the Tidyman’s property, remodel it and resell it to the Flathead County Library System. Maybe Kalispell voters would deny a bond to fund the project – just as Bigfork voters have three times previously for similar bonds in their village – but we should at least be asked.

There are few other vacant 50,000-plus square foot buildings near downtown. None, in fact. And the alternative being mulled, buying a piece of land from Flathead Valley Community College north of town, is inferior. It would move the library far away from the city center while leaving a massive downtown building empty.

It’s encouraging that the Tidyman’s option hasn’t been ruled out completely. Still, the bogged down project is bureaucracy at its worst.