Fate of Southington library project uncertain

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SOUTHINGTON — The town manager announced the decision to voluntarily withdraw from a $1 million state library construction grant at a Town Council meeting earlier this month, leaving the future of the project uncertain. 

The project architect is expected to provide a comprehensive evaluation of expenses at a special meeting of the Library Building Committee next week so officials can decide how to proceed.

Town leaders had initially hoped that the $17 million approved at referendum last year would be enough to cover the cost of demolishing the existing library and building a new one around 30,000 square feet. Rising costs mean that the money authorized by voters would only cover a building about 24,000 square feet, according to current estimates. That's about 3,000 more square feet than the existing library, which town officials agree is inadequate in a host of ways. The state grant would have offset a portion of the $17 million approved by voters, not add to it.

There is disagreement between council members on how to move forward. 

Councilor Jim Morelli, chairman of the library building committee and a Republican, hopes to proceed with the project with the money allocated in the referendum. 

“The $16.9 million at the time of the discussion was sufficient for about a 29,900 square-foot library,” he said. “And obviously as everybody understands, now, those dollars don't do the same in this current economic situation.”  

The solution, he believes, is to allocate more community program space in the new building, while decreasing the amount of shelf space for books. 

“The future of the library is not so much about books,” Morelli said. “It's more about community involvement, whether it's vocational, arts, or entertainment. It needs to be a really flexible and usable space.”

Councilors Chris Palmieri and Jack Perry, both Democrats, believe the matter should be put back out to referendum.

“We had a design, we had ideas that we sold the community,” Perry said. “What I'm hearing from a lot of residents is that everything has changed. And I would agree with that.” 

The original 30,000 square-foot proposal was the smallest size the State Library Board would consider for the project. 

A 24,000 square-foot building puts the Southington facility well under the size of libraries in the surrounding towns. Meriden and Plainville both have 45,000 square-foot buildings, while Wallingford has a 67,000 square-foot library.

“If the state doesn't want to be a stakeholder in this project with their own money, then that's a red flag right there,” Perry said.

Palmieri said councilors have discussed renovating and expanding the existing library because of the limited funding available for a new structure. 

“One of the proposals being looked at was expanding on the current library, but that's just a proposal right now,” Palmieri said. 

The uncertainty has sparked concern from some residents. 

“I was horrified to hear that instead of building a 30,000 square-foot library for $17 million, as the referendum had stated, they thought they could only build a 24,000 square-foot library,” said Margaret Lewis, a Southington resident who spoke out at the Sept. 12 council meeting. “I thought that was a waste of money...you don't spend $17 million to build a new building that is not adequate for the present, let alone adequate for 10 years into the future.”



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