Local architect Don Olsen did a study of the Parmly Billings Library 12 years ago, concluding even then that the former warehouse was well past its prime.
“The building,” he wrote, “has come to the inevitable point of revealing the false economy inherent in a long series of poorly funded remodel projects.”
The original Parmly Billings Library was built in 1901 on Montana Avenue, named for the son of Frederick Billings, for whom the city was named. The library remained there until 1969, when it moved into a four-story structure that had been built as a hardware store and parts warehouse in 1955.
The city spent $750,000 to buy it and $250,000 to retrofit it as a library, adding a spiral staircase and a garage to hold three bookmobiles.
Over the past 40 years, in the absence of any major renovations, the library spent just enough on maintenance and repairs to keep the building functional. By the time Olsen conducted his study in 1997, the library was, in his words, “dated, worn out and unattractive.”
Now, for the second time this decade, library officials and the library board are hoping to ask city voters for millions of dollars to move the library out of that old warehouse and into a new building.
That is the preferred option of the library board. The City Council may vote Monday on adopting one of three options — relocating to the nearby Gainan’s Flower and Garden Center building, gutting and rebuilding the existing library or demolishing the library and building a new one on the site — though it may defer the matter until next month and also could vote to do nothing at this time and stick with the status quo.
The first time the city considered putting a library bond issue on the ballot, in 1998, the plan was scuttled in advance of the election.
Using the recommendations of a library consultant and the architectural firm Olsen was working for at the time, the library came up with a variety of options similar to those being considered this year. They included renovating the existing library or moving into the old downtown Hart-Albin department store.
Before an option was chosen, library Director Bill Cochran pulled the plug on the process, calling it a “singularly inappropriate time” to go to the voters. A $2.5 million public-safety mill levy was already scheduled for a vote and Cochran concluded that it would be unwise to ask for additional millions to expand library services.
Instead, he recommended that the library board refocus on “more modest improvements” that would get the library through the next five or 10 years.
By 2002, the library and City Council thought the time for a bond issue was appropriate, and a $12 million proposal to build a new library on vacant land a few blocks southeast of the library went before the voters that November. The proposal was defeated by a sizable margin — 55 percent to 45 percent.
If the council decides to back one of the proposals — the library board’s preferred option is buying the Gainan’s property — Billings residents will have another chance, probably in March, to vote on the future of the library.
David Smith, the now-retired library consultant from Minnesota who produced studies for the Parmly Billings Library board in the mid-1990s and again before the 2002 election, said it isn’t all that unusual for a city to spend many years trying to replace an antiquated library.
He said one Minnesota community has been trying to build a new library since 1978 and is still sharing a portion of a school building. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Smith once worked as the library director, the library suffered four bond defeats before the city finally borrowed money from a foundation to build a new library.
In Billings, Smith said, a persistent problem has been that the library, despite “some remarkable deficiencies,” is housed in a structurally sound building. The warehouse was built to carry extremely heavy loads, with cast-in-place concrete and a profusion of thick concrete columns scattered across every floor.
But as architect Don Olsen pointed out in 1997, that solid structure masked a variety of flaws that have only grown worse with time. Olsen, who has not formally examined the library since doing that study, said recently that from the first, every renovation and improvement to the library “has been done on a shoestring.”
It has reached the point where basic repairs, including replacement of the heating and cooling systems and putting on a new roof, would cost millions of dollars. And even then the library would be locked into a building that was never intended to be a library.
Cochran said that while the entire building, with its four stories and a basement, has 110,000 square feet, the library is crammed onto two floors and currently ranks behind the next six largest cities in Montana, in per capita terms, in regard to staffing, seating, overall space, holdings and Internet workstations.
Expanding into the vacant third floor has been considered, Cochran said, but there is no heating or cooling on that floor, so that move alone would trigger the need to replace the entire 54-year-old system. Adding a floor would also require a larger staff, and a bond issue would cover capital costs only, not continuing operating expenses. As it is now, the library is open only 63 hours a week, three more than the minimum needed for state certification.
The big push behind the proposal to relocate to the Gainan’s building is the availability of federal stimulus funds that would save the city millions of dollars in reduced interest payments on a 20-year bond.
“This kind of opportunity is not going to come around again,” said Evelyn Noennig, president of the Parmly Billings Library Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for the library.
Leslie Modrow, foundation director, asked, “Do we keep putting money into this building that everyone complains about ... or do we take advantage of this opportunity?”
Another consideration is that staying in the existing building might hamper progress in what is seen as an area of the downtown primed for development.
Late in 1998, the Downtown Development Corp. came up with a grand plan to create an entertainment and retail complex on six square blocks in an area including the library, which included plans to renovate the library or build another one elsewhere in the development area.
That plan went nowhere, but there have been numerous other projects pitched for the land the library sits on or is near.
“There’s been about 20 of these proposals since I’ve been here, and we’ve always been the obstacle,” said Cochran, the library director since 1990.
And even with the library still in the old warehouse, there have been big changes regarding nearby properties in recent years.
Stockman’s Bank bought the other end of the block on which the library sits, and Billings Clinic purchased the Underriner Motors properties north and west of the library. An expansion at The Billings Gazette ate up a site once considered for a new library, as did the Yellowstone Art Museum’s decision to turn an old warehouse into a storage building and artists’ work space.
“Everyone thinks there’s an almost unlimited number of places we could build that are cheaper” than the Gainan’s site, Cochran said, but it’s not true any more and maybe never has been.
There is also some concern that building a new downtown library might indefinitely postpone plans to build branch libraries in the Heights and on the West End, long identified as priorities by the library.
Tony Hines, president of the library board, said branches will remain a priority. The library has money in this year’s budget to study the possibility of putting a branch in the Heights, and the library has been working with Montana State University Billings to build a joint library at the school’s College of Technology near Shiloh Road and Central Avenue.
Cochran said much of the Heights is still within a short drive of the downtown library, while large parts of the West End are so far out as to be “already past the convenience factor” and unlikely to use a downtown library.
But Hines said MSUB does not consider the joint library a priority in its capital plan, and even if it did, nothing could happen until it receives funding from the Legislature, which doesn’t meet again until 2011.
In the meantime, Hines said, improving the downtown library is the linchpin of whatever library system Billings will have in the future.
“The downtown has to be the basis we build on. ... It’s the one thing we must have to move forward with library services,” he said.
Hines is optimistic about the possibility of building a new library, but he acknowledged that in Billings the mindset has always been “if something’s usable and serviceable, we’ll ride it until it’s dead.”
He hopes voters will see the need for a new library because he doesn’t know what will happen if the bond issue is defeated again.
“Plan B has to be we come up with a different option,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added, “Something else will have to happen, but I don’t know how something else would happen.”