Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Billings will have a new library.

By a margin of nearly 57 to 43 percent, Billings voters approved a $16 million bond to build a new Parmly Billings Library.

“This is going to be something amazing for this city,” said Leslie Modrow, development director for the Parmly Billings Library Foundation.

In final but unofficial returns Tuesday night, 17,181 people voted in favor of the bond and 13,023 voted against it, for a margin of 56.88 to 43.12 percent.  Some 31,406 ballots were cast, representing 63 percent of 49,526 registered voters.

The last time voters were asked to build a new library, in 2002, the bond issue was defeated by a margin of 55 to 45 percent.

Probably the biggest boost for this year’s campaign was an anonymous $2 million donation made in the fall of 2010. It was a cash donation, no strings attached, that was to pay for the architectural and engineering design work on the new library.

And because that work has already been done, library director Bill Cochran said, “we’ve got a year’s work under our belts.” That will make it possible to quickly prepare final construction documents and call for bids as early as February, with construction starting as early as April.

“The plan has always been to break ground as early in the spring as possible,” said Don Olsen of O2 Architects, who has been working with the principal architect, Will Bruder, of Phoenix.

If all goes according to plan, the new library could open two years from now, in December 2013.

“A Christmas present for the city,” said Kim Olsen, also with O2.

Supporters, library workers, a crew of college-age paid canvassers and well-wishers gathered at Hooligan’s Sports Bar to await election results Tuesday night. Some of the leaders of the campaign arrived late, after the first batch of numbers was released, because they lingered at campaign headquarters a few blocks away, where volunteers and workers kept up their get-out-the-vote efforts until the last minute.

The first results were encouraging, but the number of votes was small, so there wasn’t much cheering. But at 8:35 p.m., in walked Suzanne McKiernan, co-chair of the Billings Library Initiative Committee, the group formed to lead the election campaign, and Evelyn Noennig, foundation president. They were holding up two campaign yard signs and smiling ear to ear. There was a roar of approval and prolonged clapping, and after that victory seemed assured, even though many votes remained to be counted.

“It’s just been the most amazing experience,” McKiernan said. When she was out canvassing, she said, a number of elderly voters on fixed incomes told her they had misgivings but felt they had to vote yes.

Molly Bell, a consultant with Hilltop Public Solutions, a firm that helped with the campaign, said the key was one-on-one contacts.

“A lot of people think you win an election by an advertising blitz,” she said. “But it’s really by knocking on doors.”

Plans for a new library have been discussed off and on for more than a decade.

A study completed 14 years ago concluded that the library, built in 1955 as a hardware store and parts warehouse, was “dated, worn out and unattractive.”

It also was — and remains — below code requirements in numerous areas, and stands in need of an estimated $13 million worth of improvements to the heating, cooling and electrical systems, among other deficiencies.

Danny Barcus, a maintenance man at the library, is familiar with the library’s shortcomings. He said there is always something in need of repairs, among them a 50-year-old boiler that is on its last legs. The roof is also badly in need of replacement.

“We ran out of buckets last year. No kidding,” he said.

After the defeat in 2002, members of the foundation regrouped and had been working continually to prepare for the next bond election. An opportunity almost came two years ago, when the library board put forward a plan to move the library into the downtown Gainan’s building.

That proposal was motivated by the availability of federal stimulus funds, but it had little else to recommend it and the idea was withdrawn in the face of widespread public criticism.

There matters stood until the fall of 2010, when the anonymous donor gave the foundation $2 million in cash. Modrow said that donor intends to remain anonymous.

That generosity energized supporters of a new library. The city worked out a series of land swaps so the new library could be built just north of the existing building, which would allow the library to stay open until the new one was complete. Then, the old library could be demolished and the site used as the parking lot for the new building.

The initiative campaign committee also formed and swung into action, raising $100,000 just to support the bond issue. More than 200 volunteers have been knocking on doors and making phone calls.

The library foundation, aided by a fundraising consulting firm, set a goal of raising $5 million in private funds, a goal it reached on Monday, when a pledge from the Kendeda Foundation pushed it over the top.

Because the foundation raised $5 million in private donations, property owners will be on the hook for only $13 million. However, voters were asked to approve a bond issue of $16 million because bond issues can’t be backed by pledges, only cash donations.

The proposed two-story library would stretch along the south side of Sixth Avenue North between north 28th and 29th streets.

The 65,000-square-foot library would have a children’s area double the size of the existing one, 50 computer stations, an expanded teen room, a coffee shop, a public meeting room opening onto an outdoor courtyard and restrooms on each floor, plus separate family restrooms in the children’s area.

Contact Ed Kemmick at or 657-1293.