Library backers set out to create new center of learning and culture

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Early rendering of proposed $38 million Missoula Public Library planned for Front Street in downtown Missoula.

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

With plans for a new Missoula Public Library in place and approval granted to place a bond on the November ballot, members of the library bond steering committee said Thursday they’ll begin campaigning for the project and raising private funds.

If successful, backers will achieve their goal of bringing several local nonprofit organizations under one roof in a new state-of-the art facility.

“Now that we have the green light, we have to in earnest start raising private funds,” said Scott Sterns, chairman of the steering committee. “We’re going to try to get the message out to folks in the county why this is so important. It’s not just about books anymore.”

Missoula County commissioners this week unanimously agreed to place the bond on the November ballot, asking voters to consider up to $30 million in general obligation bonds. The library would cost the owner of a $200,000 home roughly $2.34 per month.

Sterns said the steering committee has already gained the support of 278 county residents and has raised roughly $1.5 million in private funds. The committee looks to raise up to $5 million total.

“Before I got involved, they had already done a fair amount of fundraising,” said Sterns. “There’s buy-in there to bring these organizations all under one roof. Our organization is working hard to bring a true community asset together.”

The vision includes a new 120,000 square-foot facility built just east of the existing library. Aside from traditional library services, the new center would house the Children’s Museum Missoula, Missoula Community Access Television and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area.

Holly Truitt, director of the Discovery Area, traveled to Sweden last year with a team of project members to explore the “all under one roof” concept. The country has gained an international reputation for creating cultural houses focused on education, and backers hope to bring the concept to Missoula.

“We’ve spent a lot of time studying how this model is done in other places, particularly in Scandinavia where they focus on creating these rich learning centers,” said Truitt. “Each one is very much it’s own jewelry box. We think it offers an incredible opportunity for Missoula.”

She said the proposed facility could serve as a national model, transforming public expectations for local libraries.

“Our muscles are in the grant-writing world,” said Truitt. “We’re just now wrapping up a grant that will go out Friday to the Institute of Museums and Library Sciences. But ultimately, the taxpayers of Missoula will decide if this is the right project for them.”

Truitt said the institute serves as the federal agency that oversees national libraries. It judges grant applications in part on unique models capable of making transformative changes.

Supporters believe the proposed Missoula Public Library fits the bill.

“The library is a bedrock of the community right now, and the new library will be the foundation moving forward,” said Sterns. “When you put those organizations all under one roof, it will draw kids from everywhere.”

In February, the library negotiated a land swap with adjacent land-owner Terry Payne. Located east of the existing library, the property would house the new facility and allow the old library to remain open during construction.

Construction would also add to what the 2009 Greater Downtown Master Plan envisions as a cultural corridor. The new library would sit across the street from the Missoula Children’s Theater and extend pedestrian traffic further east on Front Street.

“Assuming the bond passes, the existing library stays in operation while the new one gets build,” said Sterns. “It’s not very often you have that situation. It’s also tied in well with the downtown master plan. The new location fits the new vision for downtown and what already exists.”