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ImagineIF Board continues looking at Gateway, but has stipulations

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | April 30, 2023 12:00 AM

The ImagineIF Board of Trustees has decided to continue pursuing the Gateway Community Center as the new home for its Kalispell branch, but members still hope to garner enough support to find a more suitable location.

After a meeting spent grappling with the limitations set before them, the majority of trustees voted April 27 to have Flathead County commissioners sign a letter of intent to buy the space, a necessary step to begin negotiations with county officials over the library system’s stipulations for the location.

County officials initially suggested the location inside the former mall building just off of U.S. 2 last year, though it received a lackluster response from library trustees at the time. Though they have pursued a new home for the Kalispell branch in recent years, citing maintenance issues with the current building and lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, they turned down the commissioners’ offer.

Officials with Kalispell Public Schools, which owns the three-story First Avenue East building that houses the library branch, also have indicated they hope to sell the property in the near future.

Board Chair Doug Adams listed off the 16 stipulations for the location that he sent to county officials last month. Among them: setting aside the entire available space for the library and seeing the county cover renovation costs, sidewalk and crosswalk updates, parking lot updates and paying for some insurance and property tax costs. These were among other asks, which largely focused on ways to improve the building and ease the financial burden of the move.

“I thought the best way to move forward was to get them to say whether they thought they could agree to any of those [stipulations] before we committed to Gateway,” Adams said. “They say to do it the opposite way … If we got them to sign a letter of intent, they would negotiate after that and we're free to walk away if they cannot meet our demands.”

The Gateway Community Center, formerly known as the Gateway West Mall, is an unpopular option among both the public and trustees. Trustees turned down the county’s offer to move there last year in part because of its location away from the center of town.

At Thursday’s meeting, the discussion centered around need, not want, as staff, trustees and meeting attendees debated the cons of the proposed space. Gateway offers a way to alleviate a time crunch facing the library, since the lease for its current building is up in 10 years.

Trustees Carmen Cuthbertson and Jane Wheeler, who sit on the facilities committee, listed several properties that have come to their attention recently. Wheeler said there are eight properties that have the potential to become a new home for the Kalispell branch, including the possibility of a buyer for the current building who would like to see the bookstacks stay on site.

Despite the new prospects, Adams expressed doubt that the board could agree to a site and find the money necessary to purchase and develop it within the next decade.

“Finding a better space, I don't think that’s the issue at all, I think the total issue is finances. With all the work you're doing and all the possibilities that exist, it's exciting to think about, but it's daunting to think about trying to raise the funds for it,” Adams said.

Adams argued that moving into Gateway will buy time to raise funds for a more ideal facility without leaving the library homeless in the interim.

Cuthbertson, though, expressed concern that if the library relocated to the former mall, the branch would lose public interest.

“... I think all the public will see is ‘They're putting the library out there to die’ and I think that will destroy all fundraising potential that's out there,” Cuthbertson said.

Quotes from contractor Cushing Terrell put renovations at Gateway at around $9 million, with an entirely new facility estimated to cost $40 million. ImagineIF Foundation Board President Sara Busse told trustees that her nonprofit lacks the capacity to take on another fundraising campaign until the new library in Bigfork is completed.

Busse said the Bigfork campaign is much smaller than what would be proposed for the Kalispell branch. The Bigfork Library Project comes with a roughly $1.6 million price tag and has involved years of fundraising to even approach what is needed to begin construction.

“Without that positive public commitment to this, I'm just very concerned about being able to move forward,” Busse said. “I mean, we can all sit at this table and agree that it needs to happen. But major funding like this doesn't happen without bonds and passing a bond in this climate I think would just be impossible.”

ImagineIF Director Ashley Cummins said she believes getting to a more desirable facility from Gateway would come down to what appetite the board had for it. After they make that move and get settled in the former mall, would they have the drive necessary to drum up support for a better option down the line, she asked.

Trustees said yes, but agreed that there would have to be a pretty hefty public relations campaign to communicate their intentions in order to get the necessary support.

Trustee Heidi Roedel ultimately made a motion to have commissioners sign the letter of intent. It passed 3-2, with Cuthbertson and Wheeler voting in opposition. The letter is non-binding for both parties.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at tinman@dailyinterlake.com.