Jones Library trustee to quit over project backlash

  • A Jones Library trustee, frustrated by community backlash over a controversial proposal to expand and renovate the Jones Library, pictured here, says he will resign his position on Monday. JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2016 10:09:45 PM

AMHERST —  A Jones Library trustee frustrated by community backlash over the planned expansion of the building on Amity Street says he’s resigning from the board.

Jonathan McCabe said in a telephone interview Friday that he intends to submit his resignation to the town clerk’s office Monday, at which time he will also release a more detailed statement about his reasons for departing from the six-member board after more than three years as a trustee.

McCabe said he still strongly believes in the plans being developed for the library, which would add 20,000 square feet to create a 68,000-square-foot building to meet the demands of the community and the needs of the staff.

“I still plan to be very active in supporting the library project,” McCabe said, adding that taking time away from the trustees will allow him to focus more on his 6-year-old daughter.

At Thursday’s trustees meeting, McCabe, first elected in 2013 and re-elected in March, read a statement that he has always tried “to do right by the Jones Library and the town.”

Yet McCabe said he has witnessed a small number of people making personal attacks on Library Director Sharon Sharry and undermining the legitimacy of other people who are focused on the project.

He then left the meeting, indicating that he would be with his wife and daughter at a municipal pool.

“See you at the pool, everyone,” McCabe said as he walked out from the Goodwin Room, where trustees meetings are held.

Austin Sarat, president of the trustees, praised McCabe for his service to the library and Amherst.

“He’s served on the board with distinction and done more than his share of work that we’ve been asked to do,” Sarat said.

“I worry that his absence comes from not just a sense he’s being told he’s wrong, (but) he’s not doing his job, that he’s negligent,” Sarat added.

Sharry, who wiped away tears as McCabe read his statement, said she would not comment, other than to say “I’m happy for him.”

If McCabe follows through with his resignation, his successor would be selected at a joint meeting of the remaining trustees and Select Board and that person would serve until the 2017 annual town election.

Scope of project criticized

Library officials have faced criticism over the scope of the project, estimated at $32.5 million. Some $12.5 million of that total would be in the form of state support from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

Town Meeting in the spring rejected rezoning of the neighboring Strong House, a move needed to allow the Jones to make a land purchase related to the expansion.

At that same Town Meeting, voters also approved an article asking for preservation of most of the Kinsey Memorial Garden, which forms the backyard of the library.

Sarat said trustees remain committed to the project, observing that a preliminary evaluation of Sharry by the trustees’ Personnel, Planning and Policy Committee praises her for “extraordinary efforts” related to the expansion and renovation of the building.

Trustees, Sharry and library staff have created a building program that indicates a need for additional space. A letter of intent for the project will be submitted to the state library commissioners by Oct. 7.

Finegold Alexander Architects is beginning to work on schematics for the expansion, and trustee Tamson Ely said plans also are underway to develop a cost estimate for only doing renovations to the library, without an expansion.

Meanwhile, trustees agreed to have Financial Development Agency, Inc. of Amherst, which already is assisting the library with a long-term strategic development plan, lead what is known as a fundraising campaign feasibility study.

During this study, the company will do about 50 interviews in September with residents, a cross section that includes many supporters and some opponents of the library project.

“It’s designed to have a dialogue with key folks in the community and coalesce into a report for a campaign recommendation,” said Matthew A. Blumenfeld, principal at the agency.

He said the campaign plan will include fundraising and communication strategies, observing that his company helped raise money and build support for the Holyoke and West Springfield public library projects.

Blumenfeld said his company is endorsing the library expansion.

“We think this is a strong program and needed in town,” Blumenfeld said.

He added that he is confident the work will yield generosity from the community.

The contract, which has not yet been negotiated or reviewed by town counsel, calls for paying FDA $24,750.

Sarat said he expects FDA to face challenges in its work, noting that controversies surrounding the project have brought even some people who love the library to be saying the equivalent of “pox on their house.”

Ely said it is important that residents hear from more than just people with narrow views in opposition to the project.

Whatever happens with the project will be the will of the people, Sarat said. “I’m in favor of whatever library the citizens of Amherst want to have,” he added.

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


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