Library backers win county approval for November ballot measure

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Voters this November will consider a $30 million bond to build a new Missoula Public Library in downtown Missoula.

By Martin Kidston

Missoula County Commissioners met with advocates of the Missoula Public Library on Thursday before voting unanimously to place a $30 million library bond before voters in November.

Winning approval of the ballot language marks the latest step taken by supporters of a new public library, allowing their focus to shift toward a campaign aimed at convincing voters to approve the measure.

“Hats off to those of you who have worked so hard on this,” said Commissioner Stacy Rye. “You’re not being paid to work on all the community causes I’ve seen you work on for so many years. You get no salary for this, no benefits other than a better community. Now the real push begins.”

It was back in June when library advocates launched a committee dedicated to promoting and passing a $30 million bond to construct a new facility. The committee has earned more than 300 signatures of support, and advocates are working to raise an additional $5 million privately.

“Just yesterday, we got a letter of support for the Missoula Downtown Association,” said Barbara Theroux, co-treasurer of the “Yes for Missoula Library” ballot committee. “They wholeheartedly and unanimously approved the proposal for the library and how it fits in with the downtown business plan.”

At more than 42 years old, the current 42,000 square-foot facility was constructed at a time before computers to serve a county population of just 60,000 people. The advance of technology, an aging facility and the county’s growing population, now at more than 120,000 people, has rendered the library both structurally and functionally obsolete, supporters say.

If approved by voters, the new library would stand on property just east of the current facility. Plans call for a four-story building providing up to 121,000 square feet. It would also house three Missoula nonprofits, including the Children’s Museum Missoula, Missoula Community Access Television, and the University of Montana’s SpectrUM Discovery Area.

“We’re the state’s busiest library, but the library’s plumbing is no longer reliable, energy costs are skyrocketing in the old building, and parts needed to repair the failing boiler are not readily available and have to be specially made,” said Rita Henkel, who chairs the library’s Board of Trustees.

Advocates have been planning a new facility for nearly six years. Over that time, library trustees and supporters have worked quietly to drum up support, selling the project as an essential community resource.

The list of supporters has grown to include more than 300 community leaders. It also has won advocates in areas outside the city of Missoula, including those who rely upon the library’s services in one capacity or another.

“I’m a home owner out in Lolo and a frequent user of the library,” William Geer told commissioners. “As a homeowner and taxpayer, I’m strongly in favor of this bond issue. I recognize what it will be on my taxes, but it’s what I pay taxes for, and I think I’m a willing taxpayer on it.”

According to library advocates, passage of the bond would cost the owner of a $200,000 home roughly $2.34 per month. The project fits with the city’s Downtown Master Plan and has won the support of downtown business advocates.

“The Missoula Public Library is a significant contributor to the quality of life and economy of downtown Missoula,” the Missoula Downtown Association stated in this week’s letter of support. “In conjunction with a variety of other proposed developments in the area, the new library will help revitalize the Front and Main corridor, increasing property values, tax base, visitors, and commerce downtown.”

While some look to an expanded tax base and the project’s ability to help revitalization a portion of downtown, library advocates are looking toward education.

“Building a new, up-to-date and expanded public library will help our kids learn, benefit our entire community, and ensure our community is ready for the future,” Henkel said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com