Flathead County

ImagineIF Library Board Declines County Offer for New Facility

Flathead County is considering acquiring a portion of the old Gateway West Mall, a majority of which was offered to the library board to relocate the Kalispell branch

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on March 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF Library board of trustees unanimously voted at their Oct. 20 meeting to “politely decline” an offer from Flathead County for a new facility to house the Kalispell library branch, citing concerns over the cost and a need for more robust planning for future facility needs.

The space in question is a 63,000-square-foot portion of the Gateway West Mall, currently owned by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA), that had been leased to customer service center Teletech.

According to FCEDA president Christy Cummings Dawson, a majority of Teletech employees moved to remote work during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company opted against renewing its lease in the spring.

Flathead County administrator Pete Melnick said the Kalispell Senior Center approached him in May, asking whether the county would aid them in possibly relocating. When he passed that along to the commissioners, he said they were intrigued by the possibilities the space provided for county departments, including the library.

“We kept it quiet over the summer because we just didn’t know where this was going to go,” Melnick said, adding that the facility is particularly appealing to the county as a cost-effective acquisition.

The building was appraised at $3 million, but FCEDA owes roughly $6.5 million to the county from a 2018 loan that covered the cost of moving CHS Kalispell to the Glacier Rail Park in Evergreen, meaning the county could restructure the debt for a cashless transaction.

“Of course, nothing is free right? There will be expenses if renovations have to take place and they will,” Melnick said. “We would be asking potential tenants to take on those costs through their departments.”

In addition to renovation costs, the shared maintenance costs of the Gateway facility were concerning to members of the trustee board. According chair Doug Adams and trustee Dave Ingram, the shared annual cost of the new location would exceed $65,000, and ImagineIF’s current budget would fall $105,000 short operating the new space.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to entertain those costs without assistance,” Ingram said. “Just in the financial aspect, I currently don’t feel that it’s a viable option.”

Several members of the public spoke at Thursday’s meeting, expressing concerns over the location, building and perceived lack of transparency and public scoping regarding the needs of a new library facility.

“Libraries are anchors in our communities in many different ways,” Cherilyn DeVries said. “It seems to me that this should be a long thought-out process with a lot of steps in it and plenty of space for public input … You need to really consider that this is library is a flagship building and service in our community.”

Of the 60,000 square feet available in the Gateway West Mall, the county offer allocated 40,000 square feet to ImagineIF, an increase of 37% over the current downtown location.

While library staff and trustees have long said space and adequate facilities are a major concern, the Gateway location would not sufficiently meet goals laid out in the 2014 ImagineIF facilities master plan. Under that plan, a target of 0.7 square feet per capita was identified by library consultants for the entire ImagineIF system, though the plan states “1.0 SF/capita has been the general starting point for discussion in public library facility planning.”

Currently, the four ImagineIF branches occupy 35,963 square feet of library space, a ratio of 0.33 feet per capita (0.36 if the population of Whitefish, which is served by its own library branch, is removed.) The Gateway location would bring that up to 0.43, far below the goal.

Adding another facet to facility discussions, the ImagineIF Foundation, the library’s nonprofit fundraising partner, is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to relocate the Bigfork library branch to a new building acquired in 2018. The new space will increase Bigfork’s usable space from 1,440 square feet to 6,000. Board members emphasized their desire to keep the Bigfork project as the primary goal, rather than add another capital campaign for renovating a new space.

“As much its appealing to just go anywhere because we want out of this building, I don’t think this is the building for us,” trustee Carmen Cuthbertson said.

The county commissioners have long expressed no desire to own library facilities — currently all branches are leased — and, according to public information officer Steven White, this was a one off “opportunity that presented itself. We offered the option to the library and they declined.”

“The county encouraged the ImagineIF Board of Trustees to engage with the public and conduct thorough due diligence before deciding on relocating,” the commissioners wrote in a statement. “Following their analysis, the County agrees that decision by the ImagineIF Board of Trustees is appropriate.”