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Time to hit the books on ImagineIF facilities planning

by Daily Inter Lake
| October 23, 2022 12:00 AM

The ImagineIF Board of Trustees’ decision to turn down a proposal to move the Kalispell library branch to the Gateway Community Center last week was prudent — and heartening.

Though discussion about relocating the downtown library has periodically popped up over the years, this suggestion, made by the Flathead County Commission, seemingly came out of nowhere. Details about the plan, which included potentially moving several other county agencies into a joint space of about 60,000 square feet in the community center formerly known as the Gateway West Mall, added gravitas to the proposal. Toss in word that trustees already toured the site and had arranged for a special meeting to discuss it, and it suddenly seemed a very serious proposition indeed.

Thankfully, trustees voted to “politely decline” the offer from county leadership during Thursday’s quick special meeting.

But this is not to say that moving the Kalispell branch to the one-time mall, which now houses several of the county’s major nonprofits, is a bad idea on its face. There are some immediate concerns — think ease of access and walkability — about the community center, but certainly some advantages as well, like the proximity to other agencies providing social services.

The problems with the existing library branch location also are well documented. The county leases the historic building, which was not designed for its current use, from Kalispell School District 5. It suffers maintenance issues, is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and, with three stories, is difficult for librarians to monitor, leading to public safety concerns.

A new building, possibly in a new location, likely would expand the branch’s offerings, improve its services and widen its reach. But to get there requires planning, outreach and community involvement.

Which is why the reasoning behind the board’s decision to turn down the suggestion was so heartening. Chair Doug Adams and Trustee Heidi Roedel are correct in noting that a sudden move could distract from efforts, led by the ImagineIF Library Foundation, to turn the Bethany Lutheran Church Ark Building into a new Bigfork branch. With fundraising yet to go on that project, a shift in focus to resettle the Kalispell branch could prove disruptive.

Co-Chair David Ingram, meanwhile, was rightly concerned with the finances behind the move, worrying the lease could take a bite out of the library system’s annual budget. Trustee Jane Wheeler correctly called for more public input while planning for the future of the Kalispell branch.

Planning for public facilities, whether library, school or public safety, requires a lot of discussion, buy-in and detail-oriented work. It’s not easy — just look at efforts to plan for a new county detention center as an example. The hard work on the front end, though, eventually pays off. While the work in Bigfork should be in the forefront of the trustees’ minds, planning for the future of the Kalispell branch should begin now.

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