The Rutland Free Library has announced plans to relocate to the former College of St. Joseph campus.
Library trustees are working to finalize a $1.2 million deal that would see them leaving their city-owned Court Street location and move into the former CSJ administration building, which included the school’s library.
This would place the library next door to the gym, which has been bought by the city and rechristened the Rutland Recreation Community Center. Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region is planning office space and a call center in another building while the balance of the campus is being redeveloped as a senior living facility.
The purchase price includes renovations to the building, according to Library Director Randal Smathers, who announced the plan to the public during a community-wide Zoom call on Monday afternoon.
“The exact details are still one of the things we haven’t 100 percent resolved,” Smathers said in an interview. “We do not have a signed document for a purchase. ... It’s a deal with a great deal of goodwill on both sides.”
Smathers said financing would be the simplest part of the deal. He said the library has been putting aside money for a major renovation for years and that the fund had benefitted from recent trends in the stock market. He said they will be able to buy the building without money from the city or a capital campaign, and that the new building should bring down operating costs enough for the library to immediately begin rebuilding its reserve fund.
Smathers said the trustees had completed due diligence on the building and that most of what remained was legal legwork.
“We’re severing a piece of property from another piece of property,” he said. “That’s complicated.”
Smathers said the library is planning a two-month public engagement process about what community needs are not being met. In February, he said it will try to identify proposal they can make work at the new building, with final designs aimed at meeting those needs expected by late May. Work would start in June, he said, with a target of moving in fall 2021.
Smathers said the board of trustees was contemplating a $1.5 million renovation — the boilers, HVAC system and third-floor ceiling are in need of prompt attention, and the building has a variety of other shortcomings — when one of the newest board members suggested an alternative after taking her children to the CSJ gym, which the city had begun using as a recreation center.
“On one of her trips, she heard a rumor there was a vacant library next door,” he said.
College of St. Joseph closed last year after failing to get accreditation, and Heritage Family Credit Union took possession of the campus early this year after a failed attempt to turn it into an “innovation center.” Smathers said moving to the college’s now-empty library space hadn’t occurred to anyone on the board before Trustee Catherine Picon suggested it, and even then he didn’t think it was practical — at least at first.
“I was very much in the camp of, ‘We can look at it, but we’ll never move out of 10 Court Street,’” Smathers said.
As they looked at it, though, Smathers said attitudes began to shift. It helped, he said, that the CSJ facility recently underwent a $1 million renovation.
“It’s in beautiful condition,” he said. “It’s been lying fallow, so it is going to need some spring cleaning. ... The roof needs work. It needs new siding. (Heartland Communities of America) has agreed to work with us on all of this.”
The new building is toughly 28,000 square feet. Smathers said 10 Court St. had 25,000 square feet, but with the third floor effectively unusable for anything but storage, it’s closer to 23,000 square feet.
“It’s all going to be on two floors. It’s all going to be (Americans With Disabilities Act)-compatible. ... If you were to set the two libraries side-by-side with no background ... the overwhelming support would be for the CSJ option,” Smathers said.
Picon said it had a particular feature that appealed to her — a parking lot.
“If you’ve ever circled the building more than once — or more than three times — in hope of finding a parking spot, or tried to unbuckle little ones on a busy city street, you will have known my pain,” she said.
Smathers said the library has no ADA-compliant parking spots — and while there is one designated spot, it does not meet modern standards and the library itself would run afoul of the law if it hadn’t been grandfathered.
Smathers said the Court Street building, which was build in the 1880s as a courthouse and post office, has a number of shortcomings as a modern library. One example was difficulty placing the computers anywhere except en route to the children’s room.
“I frequently get complaints from parents that the ... content on computers is not appropriate for a 2-year-old,” he said.
Another issue, according to Smathers, is that it is impossible to give librarians adequate lines of sight to different parts of the building — something that was demonstrated in recent years when anti-Semitic flyers were placed inside several books. He said the library also lacks the variety of meeting spaces sought in the community.
On top of that, Picon said added room in the new facility would mean a better children’s area with more separation from the rest of the library — without kids disturbing older patrons — and an area designated for teenagers.
Smathers said they are planning specific outreach to teenagers to determine unmet needs within that age group.
John Weatherhogg, project manager for Heartland Communities of America, said the developer is eager to have the city’s library located right at the 175-unit senior living facility it plans to build on the campus. The company announced in September expects to spend $50 million on construction and renovations.
“Who wouldn’t want to live literally connected to their city library,” he said. “They’re going to be joined by a corridor.”
The move would leave the city with the question of what to do with the old building.
Mayor David Allaire said the question was a timely one with the Board of Aldermen having called for a review of city buildings with an eye toward chances to consolidate. He said his own inclination was to put the building on the market, but that he wanted feedback.
“It will be a long discussion between the community and the Board of Aldermen and I think anything will be on the table,” the mayor said.
Smathers acknowledged that the move would take the library out of downtown, and out of walking distance from the residential neighborhoods that surround it now. He noted that they have significantly less foot traffic than they do visitors with mobility issues, and that the latter would be much better served at CSJ. He said he will work with the Marble Valley Regional Transit District to ensure regular bus service, and that he expects between the library and the community center, the former campus will have one of the busiest bus stops in the city.
“The trustees so far have been unanimous on getting us to this point,” he said. “People have come in with a lot of different points of view. We have a lot of people on the board who have a lot of attachment, as the public does, to 10 Court Street.”
Smathers said the final vote is three or four months down the road, and that the trustees will pay attention to public sentiment.
“If there’s unanimous opposition, or near-unanimous opposition, we’d give it serious consideration,” he said. “We’d have to figure out, OK, who is going to pay for the renovations? If the library were to stay at 10 Court Street, how do we make people feel safe in the library?”
On Monday afternoon, members of the community invited to a public Zoom call gave the idea high praise. Nearly 70 leaders, as well as U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, heard details of the project — many of them sounding their support.