HALLOWELL — Despite its financial struggles, Hubbard Free Library has seen a steep uptick in usage over the past two years.

That was one of the takeaways from the institution’s 2020-2023 strategic plan, presented to city officials earlier this month. The 23-page report outlined the need for additional private and municipal funding, and set “strategic priorities” for the library based on public input gathered earlier this year.

The library — a nonprofit that is supported by the city, but not formally affiliated with it — has been strapped for cash since the Great Recession and has asked for increased municipal funding in each of the last two municipal budget cycles. In June 2018, the Kennebec Journal reported the funding bind was the result of a number of factors that included the Great Recession and ensuing economic uncertainty.

This fiscal year, despite calls to close an anticipated deficit with $60,000 in municipal funds, the council moved along a budget with an unchanged $42,000 for the library from the last fiscal year.

The city’s $42,000 contribution makes up a little over a third of the $124,469 operating budget for the Hubbard. The library’s annual fund — which has a $45,000 goal this year — and interest gained from the library’s endowment — about $22,400 — make up the rest. The plan projects a 13% budget deficit this year, about $16,000, which led to the library closing on Fridays.

Last year, the city allocated $15,000 in TIF funds, on top of its usual $27,000 contribution, for a strategic planning consultant to help the Boards of Trustees gather information to determine the best way forward for the library. Library Board of Trustees President Ken Young said some of that TIF money has not been spent and is earmarked for other purposes, such as hiring a grant writer.

Planning began with forums in January and March, and a survey in February, where residents suggested a number of ways for the library to maximize community contribution. A few highlights from that discussion included using the space to hold concerts, serving coffee, holding dinner party fundraisers and having a dedicated space for selling used books to provide alternate streams of income.

Young said the plan outlines a need for increases in financial contributions from the city and private donors, but the library’s outlook is on the rise and necessary public support is there. He said the strategic planning process revealed that citizens felt that the Hubbard Free Library was a community institution and residents counted on it being available to them.

“It’s part of the concept of what Hallowell is,” Young said. “That supports the notion that the Hubbard plays a bigger role and needs to be supported.”

Sue Cote browses the shelves looking for a book to read Wednesday at the Hubbard Free Library in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Wednesday Fern Stearns, of Hallowell, was sitting in a chair near the front of the library reading a newspaper. She said she comes to the library twice a week and contributes some money to the library’s annual fund. Stearns said she contributes because it provides a chance for her to go to a place and read periodicals and socialize with others.

“Quite frankly, in Hallowell, there aren’t all that many places to just go sit,” she said. “I happen to be a teetotaler. There’s a lot of watering holes on Water Street. They’re not part of my life, reading is.”

Stearns said she could decide for herself whether or not she will give money to the library, which she favored over an increased contribution in the city’s municipal budget. She said she hoped library’s trustees found a way to “live within the existing budget” instead of asking for more money from the city.

“If they ask for more (from me),  I can decide whether to give more,” Stearns said. “It’s kind of a long project to have input into whether the city gives more.”

Young said this fiscal year support from private donors has been encouraging. In fiscal year 2017, the annual fund campaign — which is made up of private donations — returned $8,500. This fiscal year, which runs from July 2019 to June 2020, after only two months since the library’s campaign kick-off event in October, the library has raised $28,500 of its $45,000 goal.

The plan features a look at the library’s usage statistics and estimates for this fiscal year’s usage, which seem to show positive trends. The library estimates a 95% increase in visitation, jumping from 4,547 total visits in 2017 to an estimated 8,892 this fiscal year. This increased usage could have been bolstered by hosting more programs, from 114 in 2017 to 240 programs scheduled in 2019.

The strategic plan also calculated the value of services provided to the city. In fiscal year 2017, the city allocated $27,000 to the library and, according to its calculations, the institution provided $176,435 in services. With the city’s increased contributions of $42,000 in fiscal year 2018 and 2019, the library provided an estimated $202,744 value of services in fiscal year 2018 and will provide an estimated $231,931 this fiscal year.

Library Director Annemarie Kromhout rearranges chairs Wednesday at the Hubbard Free Library in Hallowell. She was putting them back into place around the table since they’d been in circle in another part of library for a book club meeting the night before. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The plan also tracks goals set this fiscal year, which include raising funds to support operations, developing new programs — such as snowshoe rental programs, and programs discussing economics and climate change — that addresses public needs and increasing the library’s usage.

Young said the plan will also help the library get more grant funding, as granting entities prefer to see a strategic plan when considering applications. He said grants are being used to make $60,000 in repairs to nine stained glass windows that were all installed before 1900. Maintaining the building’s features could be crucial to the library’s future success, as about 65% of survey respondents during strategic planning said architecture was one of the library’s greatest strengths, only behind books and its central location in the city’s downtown.

Councilor Michael Frett said at the Dec. 9 Hallowell City Council meeting that he felt an “enlightened and renewed perception” of the library and was heartened by the growth of programs and the increase in attendance. Councilor George Lapointe, who is part of a joint working group between the council and Hubbard trustees, said the plan was a “positive step.” Young said he was encouraged by the council’s comments.

Tuesday Mayor Mark Walker, who has vowed that as long as he is the mayor that the library would not close, said the plan answered questions about the library’s usage and the role it plays in the city. He said the library will present a more in-depth look at the finances to the city council’s finance committee.

Walker said more financial support for the library “has to be considered” by the council, though if the library had other avenues to fund itself “that would be great.”

“Compared to some other cities and towns, we’re not supporting our library as much as others are,” he said, adding that the council needed to dig into financial information from the library before committing to more city funding.

Councilor Patrick Wynne, who is on the joint working group with Lapointe, declined to comment, saying that he didn’t want to “taint” that group’s process by making public comments. Councilor Kate Dufour said she has not “given the plan the attention necessary” to comment, but would do so “over the holidays.” Councilors Kara Walker and Michael Frett also declined to comment.

Councilors Maureen Aucoin, Diano Circo and Lapointe, and City Manager Nate Rudy did not reply to a request for comment.

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