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Library a nice present if it meets affordability test

  • Checking out audio books at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • A model of the proposed Greenfield Public Library.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

After a fresh snow, Greenfield Public Library, which occupies a centuries-old colonial house designed by America’s first architect, Asher Benjamin, looks like a Christmas card.

For much of the 20th century it has met the needs of Greenfield’s residents, but now, as we travel deeper into the 21st century, the town turned city has outgrown its venerable library, no matter how scenic.

The Greenfield Library Board of Trustees has proposed a $20.1 million, 26,800-square-foot replacement library on the site of the current fire station, which city officials plan to move at a new location. The current two-story, wood-frame library would be sold for more suitable use, most likely for offices.

Today’s 15,253-square-foot library was built in 1797 and is known as the Leavitt-Hovey House in the National Register of Historic Places. It was pressed into service as a library in 1909.

It doesn’t comply with modern building and accessibility codes. It doesn’t have enough room or the types of rooms that a next-generation library should have.

Studies over the past decades have failed to turn up a suitable renovation plan worth the investment, which has led to the current plan for a next-generation building. Features of a new, larger library would include improved handicap accessibility, more meeting spaces for the public, individual study areas and spacious and unique areas for children and teenagers. It would be equipped for today’s multi-media presentation of information.

We don’t think there’s much disagreement that it’s time to put the antique building to a more appropriate use and to give Greenfield a Christmas present: a modern, energy efficient facility suited to our modern times.

But there needs to be clarity about how the city will finance such a project and assurance that taxpayers can handle the costs — especially at approximately the same time Greenfield builds a new fire station.

The good news up front is that the state sees enough merit in Greenfield’s plan that it is willing to shell out $10.9 million — nearly half the cost — toward the project. That’s a deep discount that’s hard to pass up. Library boosters have pledged to raise another million or so privately, leaving local taxpayers to borrow about $10.1 million over 25 years, starting in 2024.

If you believe in updating municipal facilities for the future of the city — which we do — this can only be seen as a good deal, enhancing the city’s attractiveness to new businesses, industries and residents.

The City Council will be asked at its Dec. 19 meeting to back the project. We think it should. But first, Mayor William Martin and the council’s own finance leaders need to deliver assurances that the town can absorb the extra debt.

We have heard generalizations: that the library and fire station debt will be somewhat staggered and phased in as other older construction loans are paid off — keeping overall debt about the same.

But the town’s leaders who support this project need to give a concrete and convincing accounting of the financial analysis before the council plunges forward with the worthwhile project.