Flathead County

Library Trustees Continue Search for Future Facility

After months of back-and-forth consideration of two mall locations, the ImagineIF board continues seeking ideal location for Kalispell branch

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

Three hours of discussion by the ImagineIF Board of Trustees at their March 23 meeting ended with a decision to continue exploring all possible locations as the future site of the library system’s flagship Kalispell branch.

The decision is a pivot from the board’s March 8 vote to seek a legal agreement with Flathead County in pursuit of acquiring a portion of the former Gateway West Mall, though an additional motion at the end of last week’s meeting included coming up with a list of stipulations to bring to the county should the trustees decide to seriously consider accepting the facility.

“It’s almost like we cannot win no matter what we do,” lamented board chair Doug Adams. “My concern with this vote is that if Gateway goes away, we’ve lost our only viable option.”

During the discussion over facilities, trustee Jane Wheeler outlined the options that appeared to be on the table for the trustees.

Two options have been the topic of ongoing discussion over the last few months — moving into a section of the old Gateway Mall, part of a cash-free transaction the county could broker — or lease or purchase space in the former Herberger’s location in the Kalispell Center Mall, a popular choice by the public and the trustees, but one not deemed financially feasible. Estimates for the purchase and renovation of Herberger’s is just shy of $26 million, whereas a remodel of a 60,000-square-foot section of Gateway is estimated at $9 million.

The other options include purchasing the historic building on the corner of First Avenue and Third Street East that ImagineIF currently leases from Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) or finding a new plot of land to construct an entirely new building. Another option, leasing the National Flood Building on Kalispell’s west side was also offered up for consideration, but was quickly discounted for its location and a desire by the trustees not to enter a new lease.

The trustees’ last meeting was underscored with urgency following a report by KPS Superintendent Micah Hill that the school district was relocating its offices and was planning to sell the building currently housing the library. Hill told the trustees that, should the building sell, there was no guarantee the new owners would be beholden to the ImagineIF lease, set to run through 2033.

Trustee Carmen Cuthbertson told the board last week that she’d had concerns over the prospect of being kicked out of their building and relayed a conversation with the county attorney, in which it was confirmed that the current lease would remain valid until its termination date.  

“We do not need to panic regarding us sitting out on the streets with a pile of books,” she told the board, adding that her previous desire to move quickly at securing a new location was now tempered. “I return to the opinion I had when we first voted on [the Gateway Mall location] — it is not a good place.”

“I see the library as part of a vibrant business community with lots of people, with restaurants, with apartments, and the library in the middle of it somewhere, near a city park and an ice cream shop,” Cuthbertson added. “I don’t see a developer buying that whole mall, rejuvenating it, and making it into a new, vibrant part of town. And I don’t think the library as an anchor can change that.”

Library Director Ashley Cummins said library staff had initially been resistant to the Gateway Mall location until they toured it and began brainstorming how the space could be used and saw it as a viable alternative to the current, cramped location.

“We need room to grow, we’re at total capacity, we have no room for storage, we’re turning away people for programs, so space is our main concern,” she said, noting that the library’s footprint would double with a move. “But we’re going to do our jobs no matter where we are.”

Building an entirely new library, which several trustees consider the perfect-world scenario, is estimated to cost more than $40 million.

“I think it’s fine to shoot for the stars, but there has to be a realistic plan,” Adams said. “We have a responsibility to the community here. The greatest disservice we can do to the public is to not have our ducks in a row, to fail with fundraising and to not come up with the money in order to move the facility somewhere else.”

Though Adams said the County Commissioners have been hesitant to put money toward library facilities in the past, he made a motion to request an additional $500,000 a year for 10 years in the library’s budget for the procurement of land or a new library facility. The motion passed unanimously and will be part of the board’s budget request to the county for the upcoming fiscal year.