January 23

Lithgow Library expansion pushed for June referendum from Augusta voters

Fundraising campaign still short of $4M goal, but vote on city bond issue to help pay for $8M-plus renovation would have a better shot at approval, supporters say.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Lithgow Library proponents trying to raise about half the cost of a long-sought major expansion and renovation want to bring the issue to Augusta voters in June even if the $4 million fundraising goal hasn’t been hit by then.

The total cost of the project to expand the city-owned library on Winthrop Street has been estimated at between $8.1 million and $8.9 million. The city would be responsible for the costs not covered by fundraising.

Library proponents, including officials of Friends of Lithgow Library, pledged to try to raise about half the cost of the project. So far, they’ve raised just less than $2.3 million in donations and pledges, according to Charles Johnson, co-chairman of the Friends fundraising campaign.

Johnson and Elizabeth Pohl, library director, said when pressed by city councilors Thursday that whether they’ve reached the $4 million goal or not, they want to go forward with a June referendum vote on a city bond issue that would borrow money to pay for the project.

“I’m wondering whether the campaign is going to be able to represent they have that $4 million match,” in June, said Ward 4 Councilor Mark O’Brien. “What I think I’m hearing you say is you may not.”

“That’s correct,” Johnson said.

He said it is still the group’s intention to raise the money by then, but warned the timing of grants they hope to win for the project may be such that the potential grant-givers may not have concluded their consideration by then.

Pohl, asked by O’Brien why the library group is targeting a June vote instead of the November general election, said strategically, they believe they have a better chance of winning approval in a June special election.

“If it’s a special election, those tend to be the elections where people who really care about an issue come out,” Pohl said. “In November you may get a diluted voted.”

General elections typically get bigger turnouts than special elections, especially if there is a prominent race on the ballot. This November, the gubernatorial election is on th ballot.

A proposal to bond money for essentially the same library project was rejected by 243 votes in 2007.

Voters then were asked to borrow $6.9 million for the project. Opponents at the time said they felt that proposal relied too heavily on city funding and not enough on private fundraising. After the rejection, library proponents embarked on their still ongoing fundraising effort to raise $4 million.

Johnson said they’ve raised about $1 million since this time last year, and have a couple big asks they hope will secure money from major donors for the project.

Amanda Bartlett, president of the Friends of Lithgow, said the public phase of the fundraising campaign is gearing up now, including a pie sale at the library earlier in the day. She said there is a tremendous amount of support in the community for the project.

Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said a successful referendum vote in favor of the city bonding for the library project could help spur private donations.

“It’d give a boost, to open up some other wallets, if the voters of Augusta say we’re standing behind this now,” Paradis said. “You’ve done well, in a year you’ve doubled the pledges you had. You’re saying, now, you’d like the city to come on board, and you could go to some of these deep pockets and say we have a commitment from the city, it’s time for you to make a commitment.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said the referendum question that goes to voters would likely ask them to approve the entire amount of the library project, but councilors could note in the referendum question that about half the project cost would be matched by privately raised money.

Finance Director Ralph St. Pierre said whatever money is raised privately before the city issues the bond could be used to reduce the bonded amount, and pledges that come in after the bond has been issued could be used to pay down the debt.

St. Pierre said the city will need the total amount of the project available to be able to contract with a contractor to build the library.

Pohl said an architect working to update the library plans is about 80 percent done and the project is currently being reviewed by a cost estimator to get updated figures.

Johnson said library supporters “need to get out to every door in the city,” to raise funds for the project.

“Now is the time,” he said. “It’s never the right time to do a big project. This is as good as we’ve got. The campaign is committed to making sure no stone is left unturned as we move forward to bring this to the public.”

Keith Edwards - 621-5647 kedwards@centralmaine.com

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