Herberger’s, Cenex sites eyed for new library

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Officials with ImagineIF Libraries have their eyes set on two spaces that could potentially become the new home of the Kalispell ImagineIF Library, including the Herberger’s building at the west end of the Kalispell Center Mall.

ImagineIF leaders have voiced the need for a new Kalispell library for well over a decade, saying the community outgrew the current facility on First Avenue East a long time ago.

Until recently, the library was considering building a new facility on a 4-acre lot near Smith’s grocery that is currently occupied by Cenex Harvest States. The company is currently in the process of relocating its three businesses from Kalispell to the Glacier Railway Park, an agreement that was facilitated by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority in exchange for ownership of the vacated properties.

Director of ImagineIF, Connie Behe, said the Cenex property is appealing for multiple reasons, including its proximity to the future trail system and is planned on the railroad bed once the tracks are removed. Given the timeline of Cenex’s shift in location, plans for potentially relocating to that lot were considered down the road.

However, during a public meeting with the Library Board of Trustees on Wednesday, board members and other library leaders discussed another offer that was recently brought to the table.

According to Behe, the library was approached by consultants representing the Herberger’s property regarding the possibility of a mixed-use facility that would include the library.

“There are actually a lot of amazing benefits to a library being part of a mixed-use facility,” Behe said. “It could allow us to engage with community partners and brings other advantages.”

The offer was for the library to either lease or own a 55,000 square-foot portion of the mall building. A 40,000-square-foot addition was built onto the mall to accommodate the expansion of Herberger’s in 2017, only to have its corporate owner, Bon-Ton go into bankruptcy and liquidate all Herberger’s stores less than a year later.

While some at the meeting expressed interest in the space and liked the possibility of an existing building, others voiced concerns over the long-term viability of being part of a mall. However, they liked the idea of actually owning a space, as it would offer a greater sense of location security.

The Board of Trustees voted during the meeting to allow the consultants to approach the Flathead County commissioners with information regarding the potential of making the space the new home for the library and other details on the building.

“We would need a lot of county collaboration with this,” said Charlotte Housel, executive director of ImagineIF Library Foundation.

The future of the Kalispell facility — either in the Herberger’s space or the CENEX lot — is cloudy, however.

Behe said ImagineIF officials are still in the early research phases of relocating and are looking into potential state and federal funding sources for the new facility, potentially placing a bond on the ballot and other options, as there is currently no dedicated fund or plan for funding with either option.

She said both potential sites would require, to some extent, a financial contribution from the county. But the Flathead County commissioners recently stated they do not wish to own any library facilities in the name of Flathead County and “will not fund any such acquisitions or their associated costs,” according to a recent letter.

Typically, a public library owns property that is in the name of a local government entity. But the current Kalispell ImagineIF Library facility is owned by School District 5 and the library rents the space for only $1 a year. Behe said the ownership and low cost is “a false sense of security,” considering the building could be sold at any given time, thus possibly forcing the library to rent a space that is far too expensive for its budget.

Other ImagineIF facilities are owned by resources other than the county as well. The Bigfork facility is owned by Citizens for a Better Bigfork, and the library leases the space for $1 a year. The Columbia Falls library in Columbia Falls City Hall is owned by the city of Columbia Falls and according to Behe, the library entered into an interlocal agreement to rent the space free of charge.

Whitefish broke away from the county library system years ago and now operates a community library in a building owned by the city of Whitefish.

As another option, state law allows the library Board of Trustees to acquire property in the name of the county without approval — an option Behe said the library doesn’t have to rely on as it may negatively influence future relationships between the library and the commissioners.

That relationship has already experienced recent tension as the county commissioners made the recent decision to also pull the library facilities funding from the county’s capital improvement plan, which is used as a guideline of sorts for county expenditures.

According to a recent press release from the commissioners, they “do not want to spend additional tax dollars on new library facilities in Bigfork, Columbia Falls, or Kalispell. Library operations are not being defunded. The present library system will be funded as is, without any changes from previous years.”

The county library system is the fourth most-funded department in the county, as the commissioners recently have stated, but the funds it does receive from the county’s overall revenue are miniscule in comparison to top budget departments. The three departments, including law enforcement, roads and the general fund , which top the library’s allotment, receive about 83% of the revenue combined, whereas Behe estimates the libraries receive around 2% of the overall revenue.

The removal of the libraries from the capital improvement plan comes about one year after land for a new Kalispell library and the building of a new Bigfork facility made it into the county’s unanimously approved $30.3 million capital improvement budget for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. However, items that make the plan are not guaranteed funding and are subject to final approval.

According to the press release, “The Commission supports the Library Foundation pursuing other sources of funding, such as grants and community donations, for its planned facility changes.”

All three libraries under the ImagineIF umbrella have outgrown their current spaces, as detailed in the library’s 2014 master plan, which can be found on the library’s website. It reads: “the communities of Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork need new and expanded library facilities to adequately meet the present and future demands for library services.”

According to the document, the Flathead County Library System has had the same amount of public space since 1990, despite experiencing at that time, a 60 percent increase in overall county population in a matter of 24 years.

Behe said the logistics of a new Kalispell library were going to be addressed after the future of the new facility in Bigfork was secured. However, the opportunity for potentially purchasing the Herberger’s space surfaced and library leaders agreed it is an opportunity worth exploring, despite falling onto the library’s radar sooner than anticipated.

However, the county commissioners’ decision to strike future funding for library facilities includes future annual funding for the Bigfork library, which officials estimate would fall between $40,000 and $50,000 per year to operate a new library.

The ImagineIF Library Foundation purchased the Bethany Lutheran Church Arc Building in Bigfork for nearly $500,000 and were prepared to pass ownership to the county. There were multiple public meetings between library officials and the commissioners before and after the purchase of the property, but now other possible options for ownership and future funding are being considered after the commissioners said they won’t own library properties under the county name.

This all comes amid capital campaign efforts by ImagineIF to raise additional funds for remodeling the new Bigfork facility located near the intersection Montana 209 and Montana 35. ImagineIF plans to continue fundraising efforts despite the commissioners’ decision, as library officials say the campaign has gathered a lot of positive momentum from the community in recent weeks especially.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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