Public urges Easthampton council to open city’s purse strings for library

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 01-19-2023 5:57 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The public delivered a resounding message to the City Council on Wednesday — help the city’s only library stay in operation.

The Emily Williston Memorial Library is currently on slippery financial footing, with its leaders predicting closure within five years without significant funding increases from the city. Against this backdrop, however, is a promising offer to take over the former Bank of America building downtown for free.

The library’s plight led more than 70 people to attend the council’s meeting in person, with another 20 joining virtually, as a show of support for the library. Over the course of 40-plus minutes, several residents endorsed the Emily Williston, with some saying that the library was the reason they’d moved to the city.

“After a long search for the right place to live, we moved here about six years ago,” said resident Lonnie Chu. “And among the many reasons that we found for moving to Easthampton was its walkability and its library. We use the library constantly. We don’t use television at all. We read books, and so we are constantly down there.”

The advocacy for the city library follows a presentation at last week’s City Council Finance Committee meeting that detailed the opportunity to move into the former Bank of America building at 52 Main St. The building’s current owner, bankESB, has offered to donate the building to the library.

“We’ve been working with the library for several months to allow the board time to fully consider the building as a possible new home for the Emily Williston Library. As their plan evolved, we decided that the most impactful decision we could make was to offer to donate the building to the library if the rest of their plan to relocate to the site came together,” bankESB President and CEO Matthew S. Sosik said in an emailed statement. “We know the library board is working tirelessly to try to make this plan a reality.”

Sosik said that bankESB was pleased to be able to offer to donate the building because of the positive impact for both the library itself and the entire Easthampton community.

“If this plan comes together, it will be bankESB’s single biggest donation ever,” he said.

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As good as that offer is, library leaders have concerns that if they say yes, the nonprofit that governs the library won’t be able to afford to maintain the space unless the city significantly increases funding for its operation.

Chuck McCullagh, a library advocate and the chief financial officer at the Williston Northampton School, said that all signs point to the library’s closure should it continue under its current operating and financial model.

In fiscal 2021, the city provided $216,466 to the library, or 49% of the its operating budget. The library operates as a private nonprofit and funds the majority of its budget through an endowment.

The Emily Williston Memorial Library is governed by the Public Library Association of Easthampton. The association is governed by a group of corporators, which has a subgroup called a board of directors.

In researching the funding levels of libraries in the state, McCullagh told the Finance Committee last week that Easthampton ranks 348th out of 369 in terms of municipality support for library budgets, according to data from 2021. The state average for municipal support to libraries is 86.3%, he said.

In addition to its operating budget, McCullagh also noted that the current building, which opened in 1881, has accumulated deferred maintenance and any repairs made to the building are costly because the library is on the National Register of Historic Places. The structure is also not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and renovations necessary to reach compliance cannot be addressed.

The dire portrait painted of the library’s current operating model led to several voicing concern for the future of the public service and advocating for additional funding.

“We need to support increasing the operation funding in the short term, immediately. The current model is not sustainable,” resident Shelby Lee said.

She said that anyone who has experienced the “magic and the services of a library does not want to lose it. It’s a truly unique place and it’s an important resource. It’s an important educational resource, and the community really can’t afford to lose it.”

Elizabeth Appelquist, president of the library’s board of directors, shared a letter to the council signed by state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, and state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, pledging to pursue funding opportunities that may exist for the library at the state level.

“As this topic is being discussed, please know that our offices will continue our advocacy for the library at the state level and are ready to assist the council in any way we can,” the Jan. 18 letter states.

In an interview with the Gazette, City Council President Homar Gomez said that the amount of support for the library did not go unnoticed.

“Yesterday was a clear message from the community about how important the library is to them and that we should listen to them,” he said. “We, as city leaders, have to be creative to keep these services available for our community.”

While recapping the presentation from the Jan. 11 Finance Committee meeting, Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist, who is also the chairman of the Finance Committee, voiced his support for the library and suggested that if the current library building is listed for sale, the Williston Northampton School consider purchasing it at the appraised value. He said that in doing so, they could preserve Emily Williston’s legacy and transform the space into a study hall, archives center or museum.

“Those funds would greatly assist the library in renovating the new building,” said Rist. “It’s just an idea.”

Rist also cautioned his fellow council members to “do their homework” and consider all of the city departments during this budget season as they will likely hear very passionate pleas for budget increases for the myriad needs of various city departments, including managing deteriorating roads as well as capital projects like replacing the 100-year-old water and sewer infrastructure.

He encouraged members to reach out to Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to field any questions and get a broader picture of the budget.

“The bottom line is for the departments to communicate, to advocate yes, but to also realize that the mayor and the City Council must balance all the needs of the city. To prioritize one department over others only leads to acrimony and citizen despair,” he said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>