The call to serve as a library trustee in Winthrop is typically so muted that library officials have often had to track down would-be candidates to coax them into running just to fill vacancies.

But this year’s race, fresh on the heels of a construction project that more than doubled the library’s space, has attracted enough attention — and candidates — that someone will be disappointed at the end of Tuesday’s election.

Richard Fortin, director of the C. M. Bailey Public Library on Bowdoin Street, said elections to fill openings on the nine-member board of library trustees are typically uncontested at best and often lack enough interested candidates to fill the openings.

This year, however, five people took out papers to register as candidates, four of whom filed with the town. Three of the candidates — Pearl Ames, Merrie Hanson and Elizabeth Sienko — are incumbents. The fourth, Robert Johnson, is seeking to join the board for the first time. Only three will win a spot on the board.

Fortin said the surge in interest in joining the board is just the most recent example of the popularity the library has enjoyed since it reopened this summer following a $1 million renovation and expansion project.

“People are really excited about the library right now,” Fortin said. “I’m always happy when people in town come together for a cause like that.”

The library reopened in June after completion of a nearly year-long renovation project that added a two-story addition that more than doubled the size of the former library from 3,300 square feet to 8,400. The existing section was retrofitted with new systems, including heating and ventilation, and improved access.

Fortin said the public response to the new digs has been overwhelming. He said June was the busiest month on record in terms of use, and July and August were the second and third busiest months. Fortin said as many people signed up to join the library from June through August as the library typically gets in an entire year.

New memberships have leveled off, Fortin said, but are still running about 10 percent above average when compared to month over month. People continue to ask for tours, and Fortin said there are countless stories of people who let their library membership slide, sometimes for years, but have decided to come back.

“People were really just excited about it,” Fortin said. “We got people thinking about the library again.”

The programs continue to be a big draw. An August presentation, featuring poet Richard Blanco, had to be moved to the Winthrop Performing Arts Center at the high school to accommodate the crowd. The library’s kids programs, which used to be held in the basement, gained renewed popularity after moving to a bright and comfortable event room.

“We used to see six families, eight families,” Fortin said. “We’ve been seeing 20 families. It seems that access meant more to people than you’d think.”

The library also has proven to be an attractive option for area teens, drawn by a section devoted to the age group, Sienko said. She recalled a community forum several years ago during which the public was asked to describe what they’d like to see in a local library.

“That was one of the main things that kept coming up. There was no place for teenagers,” Sienko said. “We’re hoping now we’ve been able to satisfy some of that need.”

Fortin, who speculated Winthrop may have the only contested library trustee race in the state, said not only does this year’s race include a bounty of candidates, but there is unlikely interest in the race from the public. He said he has received numerous calls from people hoping to learn more about the candidates in advance of Tuesday’s vote.

“We’re seeing things we haven’t seen before,” Fortin said.

Hanson, 60, and Sienko, 73, have each served 15 years or more, but even that kind of tradition has not typically been enough to inspire board members to seek re-election. This year all the incumbents, including Ames, 72, who has served one three-year term, are hoping to rejoin the board. All three members, it turns out, were originally asked to run for the board when it appeared a seat would remain vacant.

“Don’t assume we would run,” Hanson said. “This is hard work.”

Ames, Hanson and Sienko all say they are seeking re-election because there is still work to do, such as continuing to raise money to pay off $200,000 in loans to the town and replenish the library’s endowment. Town officials earlier this year cut $15,000 from the library’s budget request, which had sought a $30,000 increase to cover heating and utility costs associated with running a larger building. Town councilors slashed $100,000 from the original $300,000 loan amount to help make up the difference.

Fortin said there are still negotiations and budgets to work out to make sure the library can continue and even add programs that will make the most use of the new building.

“That’s going to take a lot of work,” Fortin said. “My hat’s off to these people who are willing to run.”

Ames, who said she has lived in town for 30 years, never used the library until joining the fundraising campaign. Now she’s a regular and has seen lots of others who have joined her.

“We have this wonderful library which is a tremendous asset to the town,” Ames said. “The library is now such a draw for people in town, and more people through the campaign have become interested. I think that’s why more people are stepping forward and saying, ‘Gee, how can I help?’ It’s nice to know that people are interested. It’s nice to know when my term is up there will be people interested in serving.”

Hanson is on the other end of the spectrum. A board trustee for more than 20 years, Hanson has been a regular at the library since she was a child.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, all good,” she said. “We’re still trying to make some changes. You have to take baby steps.”

Sienko, a board member for 15 years, said she wants to continue to serve to help put the library on a stable footing heading into the future.

“I’m so happy we have somebody interested in running, and I’m happy the incumbents are interested in running,” Sienko said. “I think it’s a tribute to the treasure we have in Winthrop.”

Johnson, who is challenging the incumbents, did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4


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