Library must choose new path forward

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Flathead County commissioners last month made it clear that they have no intention of owning any library facilities as county property. In a unanimous vote, the commission decided to remove future funding for library facilities from the county’s capital improvement plan — a decision that may impact the county library system’s goals of opening a new library in Bigfork and eventually moving the Kalispell library to a new location.

A new ImagineIF library for Bigfork had been penciled in at $1.5 million for 2020 in the capital improvement plan, and an additional $1.5 million in 2021 was estimated for a land purchase to facilitate the construction of a new Kalispell library. To be clear, the county is still funding library operations at its current level, providing about $1.9 million this fiscal year.

However, their vote to strike funding from the capital improvement plan does send library officials back to the drawing board when it comes to long-term facility planning.

On one hand, we find the county’s decision to be short-sighted, and one that could quash new economic development.

It was pointed out to commissioners that private investors were keen on allotting a portion of a multi-million dollar building to a new Kalispell ImagineIF library because of the valuable foot traffic it could bring to other businesses in the building. Those investors bluntly told the commissioners that their decision to eliminate future funding made them “take a step back.”

We suspect that project could have created a domino effect of redevelopment — and critical economic development — in one of Kalispell’s blighted areas. It’d be disappointing to see that prospect stymied by a lack of foresight on the commissioners’ part.

The commissioners’ vote is even more perplexing when considering the fact that it was the Flathead County Economic Development Authority that played a key role in facilitating the Kalispell Core and Rail Redevelopment project — the exact location the library system is seriously considering for a new Kalispell branch.

Despite all this, the library system still has a viable path to reach its facility goals through private-public partnerships.

The library system is unique in that it has a fundraising partner in the ImagineIF Library Foundation, whereas other county departments are left with only what the county budget allots each year.

The ImagineIF Library Foundation has demonstrated an impressive ability to rally public support for the library system. In fact, the fundraising group recently helped raise $500,000 for the purchase of a building in Bigfork for a new Bigfork ImagineIF library. While they were counting on further assistance from the county, capital campaign efforts to raise the remaining funds for the Bigfork library are expected to continue.

We’ve lauded successful public-private partnerships in the past, most recently the Sperry Chalet rebuild in Glacier National Park. We believe ImagineIF would receive similar support in its efforts to remain a cornerstone of the valley. And given the commissioners’ united stance, it might just be the library system’s best and only path forward.

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