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ImagineIF Board puts Gateway Community Center move on hold, for now

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | March 24, 2023 12:00 AM

The ImagineIF Kalispell branch isn’t moving into the Gateway Community Center just yet, as trustees weigh other options for the library’s new home.

Board trustees discussed at length different options for the future of the Kalispell branch at Thursday’s meeting. Over the past few months, they have considered new locations for the facility, which is located in a leased portion of a First Avenue East building owned by Kalispell Public Schools. The district’s central office is situated above the library in the same building.

After hearing the school district planned to exit the building and potentially sell it, trustees voted at a March 8 special meeting to move forward with the acquisition of a part of the Gateway Community Center, colloquially known as Gateway West Mall. At the time, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill told the board that the district is leasing a new building with the option to purchase as the potential home for its central offices.

“If the district wants to terminate the lease with the library, we have to give a six month notice. But, there’s nothing in the lease agreement that precludes the district from selling the building and whatever happens to lease, it moves to the new owner of the building. It would be their prerogative to continue the lease or to not,” Hill said.

Gateway West Mall was not a popular option among either the public or trustees when it came up last fall. Though offered up by the Flathead County commissioners, trustees ultimately voted against pursuing the building due to its location away from the center of town, among other reasons.

At the board’s March 23 meeting, Trustee Carmen Cuthbertson relayed recent discussions with Hill and the Flathead County Attorney’s Office. She requested all documents pertaining to their lease agreement from Hill, who provided them and suggested she reach out to the county attorney for additional information.

After discussions with Deputy County Attorney Tara Fugina, Cuthbertson learned that in the event of a sale, the library’s lease agreement, which runs through 2033, would remain intact despite the property changing hands.

She said that discovery prompted her to change her course in regards to the Gateway West Mall decision.

“Now that this panic attack regarding whether we're going to be thrown out is over, I don't think you need to act rashly regarding the move out of our current facility,” Cuthbertson said.

Hill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Board Chair Doug Adams remained in favor of securing a home for the library, even if it can stay in its current building for another decade.

“We don't have time, because the 10-year timeframe includes getting out, which means you have somewhere to move to, which means you have taken the time and found a spot, and then you're going to raise money for the spot. Then you’re going to have to either build or renovate the spot, which takes years — I'd be surprised if we had five years,” Adams said.

Trustees outlined every option currently available to them, which includes a portion of the former Herberger’s building, the space in the Gateway West Mall, the National Flood Building, buying its current home or staying put temporarily in order to explore more options. They also have the option to find a plot of land and build a new library, but with an estimated cost of $42.4 million that appears out of reach financially for the board.

Trustee Jane Wheeler said she discussed all of these options with engineering firm Cushing Terrell. She said moving into the National Flood Building would require a lease agreement of $22 per square foot. It was built in 1997 and offers a lot of space, but its location is less desirable than the Gateway West Mall and trustees were not interested in another lease agreement.

The portion of the Herberger’s space previously eyed by the library system offers plenty of room but comes with costly renovations — estimated at $25 million. At previous meetings, the Herberger’s building has been a favorite option among trustees and the public.

The portion of the Gateway West Mall costs the least. Including renovations, it would cost the library $9 million. Adams said he would like to negotiate the purchase of more square footage in the building, totalling around 60,000 square feet. Originally, the library was slated to move into 40,000 square feet with another county entity taking up the remaining 20,000 square feet. He said he also wants to pitch commissioners on the idea of the county covering the cost of renovations.

ImagineIF Director Ashley Cummins said employees were among those initially against a move to Gateway West Mall. That changed after a tour of the building and a work session to map out where different parts of the library would end up, she said.

Cuthbertson isn’t convinced that the “dying mall locations” are the best place for a library. She said she sees libraries as part of a vibrant business community.

“With lots of people and restaurants … near a city park and an ice cream shop or something like that. When I look at the mall, I don't see a developer buying that whole mall and rejuvenating it, making it into a new, vibrant part of town — and I don't think the library as an anchor can change that,” Cuthbertson said.

Through much deliberation about funding sources and long term planning, trustees landed on a motion to keep the Kalispell branch in its current building for the time being in order to explore all possibilities and options for future library locations. The motion passed 4-1, with Cuthbertson, Wheeler, Heidi Roedel and David Ingram voting in favor and Adams voting against the measure. The board also passed a motion to create a list of stipulations for acceptance of the Gateway West Mall to present to the commissioners, with the option to decline.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or tinman@dailyinterlake.com.