Competing Visions Emerge as Search Continues for New Kalispell Library Home

The library board is reconsidering the county’s proposed acquisition of a low-cost space in the Gateway Center while developers craft alternatives

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

The search party tasked with finding a new home for ImagineIF Libraries’ Kalispell branch is experiencing some whiplash as it reconsiders old options while local developers pitch competing visions.

Over the last six months, the ImagineIF trustees have held discussions about the former Herberger’s location in the Kalispell Center Mall, which ultimately didn’t move forward due to funding constraints. There was an added sense of urgency when trustees learned that their current building on the corner of 1st Avenue and 3rd Street East, owned by Kalispell Public Schools (KPS), may be sold following the school district’s plan to relocate offices to a building south of town. That planned move has since been canceled due to high costs and changes within the system’s administrative leadership, according to KPS Board Chair Sue Corrigan, extending the deadline by which trustees must find the library a new home until the current lease expires in 2033.  

Then there was an offer from the county to acquire space in the Gateway Community Center, formerly Gateway West Mall, a low-cost option for the ImagineIF trustees, who initially turned the offer down, revived it, tabled it and brought it back for discussion. At the trustees’ April 24 meeting, some board members signaled their renewed interest in moving to the Gateway location, with a 3-2 vote allowing the county commission to sign a nonbinding letter of intent with the Flathead County Economic Development Association, the property’s current owner. Trustee Chair Doug Adams made the motion with plans to negotiate 16 stipulations with the county, including that:

  • The entirety of the building is used for the library
  • The county will pay for renovations, moving costs, property taxes, insurance, CAM charges, and inspections of the building
  • The county will request the installation of a traffic signal and wayfinding signage on U.S. Highway 2
  • Construction of sidewalk near the building and repavement of the parking lot with at least 75 spaces allocated to the library
  • Guaranteed access to the loading dock
  • Guaranteed use of building by the library for a minimum of 25 years

Board member Carmen Cuthbertson reiterated her previous opposition to the Gateway location, calling it a “death knell” for the library.

“Even if we make it clear that in our minds we’re only going there to have a longer timeframe to [make a new building happen,] I think what the public is going to see is ‘they’re putting the library out there to die,’” Cuthbertson said. “I think that will destroy all fundraising potential.”

Cuthbertson said that with 10 years left on the lease for the current Kalispell location, the board should take time to find the right location, instead of the cheapest or most convenient one.

Adams countered that no option would be cheap and that basic renovations on the Gateway property had been quoted at $9 million.

“Figures could be as high as $40 million on a new facility, and I simply want to know how we’re going to raise that kind of money,” he said. “We’ve talked about the possibility of forming a district, which would help us greatly, but will it pass? If it was a Kalispell city library, I believe that it would, but as a county-wide library, I’m not the least bit optimistic.”

He added that 10 years was not a long time to find property, raise funds or form a tax district and build or renovate a new library.

By comparison, the new Bigfork library location was purchased by the ImagineIF Foundation in 2018, and renovations are only expected to break ground this year, though that five-year timeline does include the pandemic, which paused fundraising efforts. 

The motion to have the county sign a letter of intent for the Gateway West passed 3-2 with Carmen Cuthbertson and Jane Wheeler voting in opposition.

Both Cuthbertson and Wheeler sit on the board’s facilities committee and have been leading the search for all possible relocation options.  

At the meeting, the two board members relayed discussions they had with developer Molly McCabe during an April facilities committee meeting about building a new library. McCabe’s real estate development firm, Hayden Tanner, is developing a property on Fourth Avenue East North near the Parkline trail. McCabe detailed a vision for Hayden Tanner to build a new Kalispell library branch on the property with the ImagineIF board entering into a lease-to-own agreement.

McCabe had similar conversations during the planning stages of the Parkline Trail, and a proposed library facility was even included in the original designs for the linear park from the 2012 Kalispell Core plan. “Wherever they are located — libraries form a hub for the community,” McCabe said.

A 2018 design rendering of the Parkline Trail identified a potential library site, shown in the lower left corner of the image. Courtesy image.

Cuthbertson and Wheeler relayed additional conversations with community members — one interested in a future purchase of the library’s current location, while retaining ImagineIF as a tenant, and another about building a library at the former Kalispell Lumber property on Eighth Avenue WN near Albertsons.

“Not many of these options have price tags at this point, but we have no money at this point,” Wheeler said. “It’s sort of like walking blind, but we’re seriously looking because this particular time, as opposed to the last 25 years we’ve been playing this game, we have a drop-dead date. We need to be out of our building in 10 years.”

“These conversations are one of those wonderful opportunities that sort of popped up form the publicity that we are in fact looking for a new home for the library,” she added. “People are coming forward which is a good sign.”

The trustees also voted unanimously to adopt the new strategic plan for ImagineIF, which will guide the library system’s future through 2028. The plan’s goals include researching alternative locations for both the Kalispell and Columbia Falls branches, expanding local history and local author connections, and hiring additional staff members. The full strategic plan can be read here.

Drafting the new strategic plan was a top priority for director Ashley Cummins when she was hired last year. Parts of the plan, such as sketching out goals for maintaining or improving existing library branches, were difficult to pin down amid ongoing discussions of potential location changes.

“It’s very hard to write a strategic plan five years into the future when we have nine different facility options currently,” Cummins said. “My plan could change drastically depending on where the future of the Kalispell branch is.”

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