AUGUSTA — The estimated cost of renovating and expanding Lithgow Public Library has increased by nearly $3 million since voters rejected borrowing funds for basically the same project in a 2007 referendum.
The architect who designed the 31,000-square-foot library project several years ago recently provided an updated, detailed estimate of the cost of the project, which previously had been pegged at $8.9 million.
Now, some seven years after a referendum on borrowing funds to pay for the project failed by 243 votes, the estimated cost has swelled to estimated $11.7 million.
Library Director Elizabeth Pohl said the increased cost isn’t surprising because construction costs have gone up since the renovation of the city-owned building first was proposed.
She said the recent update from architect J. Stewart Roberts is more detailed than previous cost estimates and provides a comprehensive plan that would address the library building’s many problems, including a lack of accessibility for people with disabilities, which puts the building out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; leaks which lead to flooding; insufficient space for collections or programming; no space for teenagers; and antiquated, inefficient building systems.
“We waited and delayed and the result is a higher cost, to really address those problems,” Pohl said. “We’re not just talking construction, but demo, site work, architect’s fees, construction, landscaping, furnishings, you name it. So it’s going to be a big number no matter how you look at it. Clearly, the seven-year delay didn’t help.”
Detractors of the 2007 proposal said the project relied too heavily on taxpayer funding and not enough on private fundraising. In that proposal, the city would have borrowed $6.9 million in a bond, with supporters pledging to raise the additional $2 million needed to cover what was, then, an estimated cost of $8.9 million.
Now Friends of Lithgow Library officials have committed to raising at least $3 million for the project, about $2.3 million of which they’ve raised in cash and pledges already.
Because of the increased cost indicated by the updated estimate, however, taxpayers now would be responsible for somewhat more money than they would have paid under the 2007 proposal. This time, the city’s commitment would reach $7.5 million, with $7 million coming from a proposed bond that could go to voters for consideration as soon as June. The other $500,000 is tax revenue that councilors already have set aside for the project.
Wick Johnson, co-chairman of the Lithgow fundraising campaign, said a prime difference between now and 2007 is that now private money — $2.3 million so far — has been raised, while in 2007 no private money had been raised for the project before the bond question went to voters.
He said even at more than $11 million, the project is “an incredibly good value.”
“What we’re putting together is a package that will create a high-quality facility that will last for generations,” Johnson said. “What we’re looking for is the right time to do this, and this is the right time. Every month that goes by, the price will go up. And every month that goes by, the need will get greater. We’re at the point where it is time to do this project.”
Mayor William Stokes noted the privately raised money essentially would cover the cost increase since 2007.
“It’s a significant amount of money, and I’m sure all of us would like the number to be smaller; but six and a half years have passed,” Stokes said. “So it was not unexpected that it would cost more. At one time we were hopeful that, with the recession, we were expecting to see lower prices, because contractors were eager for the business. That window may have been there when we were in the depths of the recession, but I think that window has closed.”
Pohl said library supporters have been working toward expanding the building since 1996.
She said the new design, replacing a 1979 addition, fits in with the older main building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but is also modern, functional and adaptable to meet changing library needs.
Johnson, with capital campaign co-chairwoman Laurel Coleman and Friends of Lithgow Library Chairwoman Amanda Bartlett, said in a letter to the city they are committed to raising $3 million for the library project.
That’s $1 million less than their initial $4 million target, but $1.5 million more than the $1.5 million expert consultants told Lithgow supporters they could expect to bring in via fundraising. Johnson said they’re confident they can reach the $3 million figure and hope to raise more than that, but they aren’t committing themselves to more.
“Raising $2.3 million is pretty amazing for an organization that never did any fundraising before,” Pohl said. “We need to be realistic. There have been a lot of other capital campaigns. Not that we’re competing with them, but I’m sure there could be a case of campaign fatigue in the community. There has been so much work, so much generosity. I think the friends have done the very best they can and will continue to raise money.”
Stokes said the $4 million fundraising goal was an aspirational goal, not a firm fundraising commitment.
City Manager William Bridgeo said the library building’s condition is such that doing nothing to improve it is not an option. So he said he would work with Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, to analyze the project’s fiscal effect and the city’s financial options.
Library supporters previously said they hoped the city would put the bond proposal to voters in the June elections, even if they haven’t completed fundraising by then. Bridgeo and Stokes said there is still enough time to get the matter on the June ballot, but that councilors have not decided when they want to bring the matter to voters. They might wait until November.
Johnson said the campaign committee still would like a June referendum, but the timing of the vote is up to councilors.
Councilors are scheduled to meet with Lithgow supporters Thursday to discuss the project and its financing, at their informational meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at Augusta City Center.
Library supporters hope to knock the $11.7 million cost down 10 percent by coming up with $1.2 million in cost reductions in the project.
Stokes said the city showing support for the project could prompt additional donations.
Stokes and Johnson said the library could be among the final pieces of a renaissance taking place in the city, where state-of-the-art buildings built in recent years include Cony High School, the YMCA, MaineGeneral Medical Center, and, across the street from the library, a courthouse complex.
Stokes said the new library, joining the new court facility, would improve one of the major gateways into the city, along State Street.
The next fundraiser for the library project is a pie sale March 14, which is International Pi Day, commemorating the mathematical concept of pi, which is 3.14. The March 14 pie sale at the library is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. and continue until all the pies are gone.
A sale of pies donated by library staff, patrons and community members in January at the library raised $900 for the capital campaign.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 firstname.lastname@example.org