Flathead County

ImagineIF Library Board Reconsiders Gateway West Location

Without county support for its preferred choice of a new library location, board considers “workable, but not desirable” space

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

At a special meeting on March 8, the ImagineIF Libraries Board of Trustees voted to seek a legal agreement with the county in pursuit of acquiring a portion of Gateway West Mall, despite the unanimous opinion among board members that it was not the preferred choice for a future Kalispell branch.

The board had previously voted to pursue a different mall location, the former Herberger’s, as the future site of ImagineIF. space, which includes up to 86,000 feet of space for lease or purchase, has united the board, library staff and members of the community in recent weeks due to its proximity to downtown and the Parkline Trail and ample parking.

At the March meeting, board chair Doug Adams reported that in discussions with the county commissioners, a proposal to use Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds from the county to finance a loan for Herberger’s was not feasible due to limitations on how CIP money can be utilized. To continue pursuing the Herberger’s space, Adams said the library board could ask the county to fund the purchase of the building outright or take out a loan on behalf of the library — two options he saw as dead ends.

“It takes two out of three to get any money out of them. I don’t think that money is forthcoming from any of them. I don’t think we’re going to get a positive vote. They are more concerned about getting a new jail,” Adams said. “They are averse to spending money, and I, as a fiscal conservative, I get that. But I also see the other side that the law requires us to have a library and that library has to be actually in a building somewhere.”

Adams said the board was left with a third option, to take county up on a previous offer to relocate the library to the Gateway West Mall.

In October, the trustees “politely declined” the county’s offer of a 63,000-square-foot portion of the mall that is currently owned by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA). The building was appraised at $3 million last year, but FCEDA owes roughly $6.5 million to the county from a 2018 loan, meaning the county could restructure the debt for a cashless transaction.

The Gateway West Mall would move the library out of the downtown corridor, removing easy pedestrian access to the building. The space would also require renovations prior to the library moving in, and shared maintenance costs of the Gateway facility would exceed $65,000, which concerns board members.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place, but the truth is they have offered us a solution, even if it’s not our ideal solution,” Adams said.

Board Chair Doug Adams at an ImagineIF Libraries board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Discussions among board members framed the move to Gateway West as temporary while exploring fundraising opportunities to purchase Herberger’s or seek a different long-term solution. A portion of the 63,000-square-foot space could be leased out to provide an income source, while still providing room for the library’s growth. Board member Jane Wheeler expressed concerns that if they made the move, it would end up being a permanent change.

“I think it’s more likely that we move into Gateway, and then begin making plans to build a library,” said library director Ashley Cummins.

The board’s discussion had a greater sense of urgency than previous meetings, following recent votes by the Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) trustee board to sign a letter of intent to move the district’s central offices out of the shared space with the Kalispell library branch to a new building south of town.

KPS owns the historic building on the corner of First Avenue and Third Street East, and leases three floors to ImagineIF, an agreement that currently runs through 2033. However, KPS superintendent Micah Hill told trustees that the school board could decide selling the building is in the district’s best interest, putting the library’s future up in the air.

Hill said the district is “optimistically” looking to move its offices in the fall, adding that he had been contacted by multiple prospective buyers with ideas ranging from respecting the library’s lease to turning the building into commercial and residential space. Hill said he wanted to be transparent with the library board, as a new owner would not be bound by the current lease agreement.

“I’m not here to create fear or anxiety or anything like that. We really do want to be good partners,” Hill said. “But the district is going to, depending on the board, they’re going to look after their best interests as well. We’re taxpayer funded; we have an obligation to be good stewards of what we have.”

ImagineIF Trustee Dave Ingram brought up the possibility of KPS and ImagineIF splitting the Herberger’s location, which has a total of 86,000 square feet of space, which Hill said could be a potential discussion point between the two boards.

“I’d like to at least have a discussion about that. We’re at the point where we have to look outside the box, because we don’t have a box,” ImagineIF board member Wheeler said. “We have no money and we’re completely dependent on the county for any kind of financing.”

In lieu of a partnership discussion with the school board, the ImagineIF trustees decided to move forward with plans for the Gateway West location, with some members expressing fear of what would happen if the current building was sold out from under them.

“I think Gateway is a workable solution — not desirable, but workable,” Ingram said.

ImagineIF board member Carmen Cuthbertson made a motion to move forward with the Gateway location, “because we have no choice.”

“It’s a disappointment when we all had our hearts set on [Herberger’s],” Adams told the Beacon. “We keep getting thrown these obstacles. But the fact of the matter is, we’re looking at a $3 million investment by the county to get the Gateway property, so it’s not like the county’s not putting money towards the library. I just wish it was towards something we wanted.”

The board will vote on signing a letter of intent to acquire the Gateway West property at its next meeting on March 23.