Library renovations in limbo


A sketch, from 2003, of what a renovated and expanded Portland Public Library might look like. (images/courtesy Portland Public Library)
A sketch, from 2003, of what a renovated and expanded Portland Public Library might look like. (image/courtesy Portland Public Library)

Library renovations in limbo 
No construction timetable, little funding, big delays 

By Chris Busby

It was an exciting time for the Portland Public Library’s administrators, employees and patrons. A study had just shown strong community support for a major renovation of the central library building on Congress Street. A committee was forming to solicit donations from corporations and wealthy individuals – the so-called “quiet campaign” period before the big public fundraising efforts kicked in a year later – and the goal was to begin construction within two years’ time. 

That was the fall of 2002.

The “quiet campaign” is, apparently, still underway. But after three years of effort, the campaign is still far short of its $4.5 million private fundraising goal. 

This delay has, in turn, delayed public funding for the project for at least another year. Library administrators have no idea when renovation work will begin. 

The library’s director, Sheldon Kaye, has resigned. The interim director and business manager, Clare Hannan, is incommunicado. A new director, Stephen Podgajny, was hired earlier this month, but will not begin work until February.

Responding to a call placed to Hannan, the president of the library’s Board of Trustees, Peter Merrill, said he has only a vague idea how much money has been raised so far — “probably over a million-and-a-half dollars,” he told The Bollardlast week – and no idea how much money has already been spent on consultants and other preliminary work. “I can try to get that [figure],” he said in late November. As of Dec. 6, he had not provided any figures. 

Last year, Portland voters approved a measure directing the city to borrow $4 million for renovations to the main branch, which was built in 1979. Half of that sum has been raised by selling municipal bonds, and the other $2 million was supposed to be included in the city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget this coming year. 

But because the library’s private fundraising campaign has been so slow and unsuccessful – with only a third of the $4.5 million in private money secured after three years – the rest of the public bond money is on hold. It may be included in the city’s Fiscal Year 2007 CIP budget, which will be determined next fall. “We’ll wait until they need the money,” said city Finance Director Duane Kline, who attributed the change in plans to “a delay” in the library’s fundraising efforts.

Merrill said the library’s private fundraising campaign is still “on track,” but admitted, “It’s taken a little longer than I would have expected.” 

Asked when construction might begin, Merrill said he did not know. The library no longer has a timetable by which the work will be started, much less complete, but Merrill said, “I would expect that our schedule would have crystallized more within the next year.”

The renovation and expansion of the central library building has been expected to cost a total of $8.5 million. Construction costs, however, have skyrocketed since that estimate was developed several years ago, and it’s unclear how the rising cost of construction materials and other factors will impact the original plan. 

That plan included a new children’s library; a new area specifically for teens; an expanded and relocated audio-visual department; a new space for the library’s popular public computers (as well as computer upgrades); replacement of the building’s heating and air conditioning system; new plumbing, restrooms, floors and lighting; interior and exterior redesign and renovation work; and security upgrades. 


Sketches of a new entrance (left) and new stairway envisioned for the main library building on Congress Street. (images/produced by Will Bruder Architects, Ltd., in partnership with Turk Tracey & Larry Architects, LLC; courtesy Portland Public Library)




In November of 2002, library trustees told the Portland Press Herald the “quiet campaign” period would be wrapped up by the following September, and construction begun by September of 2004. “We’re all very excited,” then-director Sheldon Kaye said. “We’re eager to get started.”

In March of 2004, Kaye told The Portland Forecaster the goal was to begin construction in the summer of 2005. He estimated the work would take about a year to complete. 

According to materials associated with the library’s “Reach for the Stars” capital campaign, over $485,000 in “gifts and pledges” had been garnered by Feb. 15, 2004. A little over a year later, in March of this year, Kaye announced his resignation, and it was reported that the library had raised about $1.4 million in private funding. 

In the nine months since, another $100,000 or so may or may not have been raised, and an undetermined amount has already been spent.

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