Guest columnists Austin Sarat and Sharon Sharry: Why Jones Library expansion remains best option

The Jones Library in Amherst.

The Jones Library in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By AUSTIN SARAT and SHARON SHARRY

Published: 06-20-2024 3:42 PM

 

The Jones Library trustees remain convinced that the proposed library renovation and expansion project represents the right vision for Amherst’s main library. This vision has been repeatedly endorsed by town residents and their government.

Put simply: What it will enable us to achieve cannot be achieved by any financially feasible alternative. If we do not move forward with renovating/expanding the Jones, we would not be fulfilling our responsibility to the library and to Amherst’s residents.

The truth is that no other alternative will get us a library that is accessible to everyone, that has adequate spaces to meet the needs of our teens and for children’s programs, ESL learners, adult programs, community meeting rooms, the Civil War tablets, our visual arts community, and our priceless Special Collections. We will continue to pursue our sustainability goals, and our desire to preserve much of the historic look and feel of the original 1928 building.

Despite inflation in construction costs, the cost of the project to the town’s taxpayers remains capped at $15.8 million. As we move forward with the project, anything above the town’s share of the cost will be supplied by additional fundraising, borrowing, or the temporary use of the library’s endowment. The trustees have thoroughly considered the consequences of the latter two options for library operations and concluded that neither would endanger our ability to maintain library services.

Choosing a repair-only option was the wrong choice when we started on the renovation/expansion project. It remains the wrong choice today.

In 2017 and 2020, independent professionals who analyzed the needs of the building just to keep it operational concluded it would cost the town approximately the same as its share of the renovation and expansion cost. When these repair estimates take inflation into account and are augmented by required design and engineering fees, and supplemented by the cost of abatement of the ubiquitous asbestos recently discovered, the total cost to the town would be as much as $23.8 million.

Moreover, research indicates that going out for a rebid on the expansion/renovation project will yield a more affordable price.

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According to a study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the number of bidders directly influences how high (or low) the project cost will be. When there is only one bid, the cost will be 20% higher than if there had been five bidders. In addition, the subcontractors’ initial bids were below estimates; the bidding process was not as robust as it could have been; and the project carried with it complexities that can now be simplified.

Finegold Alexander, the project’s architect, says substantial cost savings can be realized by changes to the design of the project. Those changes will still support all the library’s desired programs and services. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has concurred, and the trustees have agreed to cover the cost of designing such changes.

With very few exceptions, none of the items under consideration for elimination would be provided in any repair alternative; nor would repairs provide the programmatic advantages achieved by the renovation and expansion. The fact is that we are moving forward because we believe that when it is completed, the renovation/expansion project will substantially improve the quality of life in Amherst, while just repairing the Jones building will not.

The trustees’ vision of the Jones library is bigger than bricks, carpeting, and landscaping. We want a library where everyone can enter the building, stay all day, and feel that they belong. That is why the trustees will not give up on the effort to create a library that will meet the needs of the town and its users for decades to come.

In the end, the library project has never been about the building; it has always been, and remains, about the people. That is why we are determined to make sure that the Jones Library continues to be “the hearth and soul” of our community.

Austin Sarat is president of the Jones Library board of trustees. Sharon Sharry is the Jones library director. Both serve on the Jones Library Building Committee.