Amherst officials grapple with soaring Jones Library project costs

  • An artist’s conception shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2022 4:42:38 PM
Modified: 8/19/2022 4:39:13 PM

AMHERST — Significant cost escalations for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, exceeding what is available in the private library endowment as a backup source of funding, is expected to force the Town Council to discuss how the project moves forward. 

With estimates showing cost escalation of $10.6 million in hard costs and $2 million in soft cost for a project approved at a $36.3 million cost in April 2021, Town Manager Paul Bockelman informed councilors this week that they will need to take up the topic, along with the Jones Library Building Committee and the elected library trustees.

“This increased cost will eventually come back to the council for a pretty substantial conversation,” Bockelman said.

While library officials are exploring increased fundraising and additional grants in hopes of covering the rising costs, being blamed on inflation, the concern for the Town Council comes in the agreement it has with the Jones Library trustees. That agreement protects the town in case of cost overruns, but depends on the Jones Inc. endowment having sufficient money for such a purpose.

Town Council in April 2021 authorized $15.75 million in borrowing for the project, matching a $13.87 million construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and $6.6 million in private and public contributions.

While trustees have explored the option of putting some of the endowment at risk, the recent cost escalation goes beyond what is in the endowment, which is used annually to support operations.

“I don't think the endowment would be enough,” Bockelman said.

The agreement states that should fundraising and other sources fall short, trustees can use the $9.12 million in the endowment as of Feb. 28, 2001. At the time, library officials suggested they could draw $2 million from it without affecting library operations. 

A June 30, 2026 due date is set in the agreement for full payment, though the agreement accounts for possible delays in receiving the state money, and provides for getting the payment up to one year after an occupancy permit is issued for the building, or another date set by the Town Council:

“In the event that the full library share is not paid by the library share due date, the parties agree that the town shall have all available rights and remedies to enforce the library’s obligations under this agreement, including, without limitation, the right to compel the trustees to use the endowment to pay the library share.”

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the Town Council would also have to vote to increase the spending authorization in response to the rising costs.

District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney wondered if the MBLC might accept a smaller footprint and scaling back the increase in the library from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet. “Why we can't go to the state and ask for that is beyond me," Rooney said.

Bockelman said the state doesn't factor in cost escalation and already made it clear in conversations with officials that it wouldn’t support cutting the building’s size.

Plans being developed by Finegold Alexander Architects of Boston provide a bigger children’s room so that more families can participate in programs, having a dedicated teen room, creating an enlarged and climate-controlled area for special collections, and improving space for the English as a Second Language program. The project would also bring energy efficiencies in the renovated building and get the library to net-zero in terms of energy usage.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said library officials were forced to have a bigger project than needed due to the town’s population including residents who don’t live in Amherst year-round, such as those attending the University of Massachusetts.

“To my mind the fatal flaw was including all the UMass students as if they were residents of the town of Amherst,” Pam said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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