George Ryan: Why we’re keeping Jones expansion alive

The front entrance to the Jones Library.

The front entrance to the Jones Library. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By GEORGE RYAN

Published: 06-27-2024 7:20 PM

After over an hour of intense discussion, the Amherst Town Council voted 4-8-1 on June 17 to reject Councilor Cathy Schoen’s motion to urge the town manager to not sign a contract extension with the Jones Library architects. This would have been in essence a vote of no confidence in the trustees’ decision to rebid the project with cost-saving design changes. I voted with the majority to keep the project alive and to support the trustees’ decision for three important reasons:

1. To halt the rebid would be financially irresponsible.

For the town manager to stop the rebid and revert to a “repair only” option would cost the town substantially more money than the $15.8 million the town is committed to spend under the renovation and expansion. Current reasonable estimates put the cost of repairs at between $20 million and $22 million, and that is without factoring in asbestos abatement or the requirements of the town’s newly adopted “stretch energy code.”

2. Only the renovation and expansion plan addresses the Jones’ critical space and programming needs.

The renovation and expansion project from the beginning has been about space and programming needs, not any particular design or aesthetic. It is about a welcoming and open children’s space, a dedicated teen room, long-term protection and accessibility for our priceless Special Collections, adequate work and break space which is ADA accessible for the library’s long-suffering employees, a very public and visible home for the Civil War tablets, space for the Burnett Gallery — in sum, space to meet its current and future needs as a 21st-century library. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners fully supports these goals.

3. This is the trustees’ call, not the council’s.

The trustees are elected officials who have the fiduciary responsibility to care for the library’s endowment and overall fiscal well-being. They have made the judgment that the use of the endowment and borrowing against it if that should be necessary is an appropriate and justifiable risk given the library’s very real needs and their vision of the Jones in the 21st century.

The council’s responsibility is to ensure that the town’s commitment of $15.8 million remains fixed and the risk to the town is reasonable. The trustees realize that all future costs must be borne by them — through the Capital Campaign and (if need be) backstopped by use of their endowment and judicious borrowing. While the current gap of $7 million is significant even if the fundraising were to stop today (in fact it has not even begun its public-facing campaign), the trustees are committed to making up the difference.

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To date the Capital Campaign has raised $9.6 million in commitments towards a $14 million goal from over 400 individual, institutional, and corporate donors. They have exceeded their original goal by 150% — and again this is before they have gone public, which would happen once a contract is signed and the project is greenlighted.

There is no such thing as “risk free,” but a fixed commitment of $15.8 million backstopped by a strong Capital Campaign and the judicious use of the library’s endowment seems to me a much better bargain than a “repair only” option that will cost the town well north of $20 million and address none of the programming and space needs that are at the heart of the project.

Yes, in the end the rebid may fail. And the town will be forced into the “repair only” option. But it will hardly be a cause for rejoicing for anyone who cares about the Jones and its future. And the town will end up paying far more and getting far less in return.

Let us hope the rebid process produces a good result.

George Ryan is an Amherst town councilor representing District 3.