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Friends win OK to reopen Benton library

Posted by Sarah Thomas  October 5, 2010 08:31 PM

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After a year of relentless fund-raising and activism, Belmont residents hoping for a chance to open the doors of the Benton Branch Library had their wish granted at Monday's Board of Selectmen meeting.

The selectmen voted 2-1 to allow members of the Benton Library Reuse Committee and the Friends of the Benton Library to draw up a two-year license to reopen the library using private donations.

"We're delighted the Selectmen had faith in us," said Richard Cheek, chairman of the Reuse Committee, who presented the proposal at last night's meeting. "This could not have come together without the hard work and generosity of a tremendous number of volunteers, and now all their work has paid off."

The Craftsman-style building was originally constructed as a chapel to the Belmont Episcopal School for Boys in 1892, and was donated to the town in 1930. A letter from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in July 2009 says the building meets criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was used as a town library until 2009, when the Board of Library Trustees voted to close the branch due to budget constraints.

Under the plan presented by the Reuse Committee, the town would retain ownership of the building and private donations would supply the yearly operating costs, as well as make capital improvements on the building's heating and plumbing systems and windows. The library would be open for 15 hours a week and staffed by volunteers.

Cheek and Elizabeth Gibson, member of the Friends of the Benton Library, said that similar arrangements had proven successful in Newton, where the Waban and Auburndale branch libraries are run with volunteers and donations.

"We want to prove that the private sector can do its bit to preserve this valuable architectural resource for the public," Cheek said.

The Friends of the Benton Library estimate they have raised over $10,000 in donations so far, enough to cover just under a year of running expenses. More donations were pledged contingent on the selectmen approving the plan. Donations will also go toward a two-year maintenance program to repair the library's porch roof, replace gutters, and install new exhaust fans.

"We've looked extensively at the repairs, utility costs, and building codes, and interviewed the directors of other public libraries," Gibson said. "We want to open on a limited basis in the spring of 2011, and be fully open by fall."

The selectmen had previously considered selling the building as a private residence, with a historic deed restriction. A real estate assessment completed in February valued the property at $510,000.

"With a sale, we could be looking at $7,000 or $8,000 in annual tax revenue," said selectman Angelo Firenze, who voted against the proposal. "We have so many capital improvements in this town that need to get done, and that money could be used for them."

"I'll agree that $510,000 is nothing to sneeze at," said selectman Mark Paolillo. "But even if we're in a desperate financial condition now, we don't want to be selling off assets we'll regret losing in ten years when things are different."

Residents from the Oakley Road neighborhood the Benton Library served said they felt working on the project had brought the community closer together.

"This is what volunteerism on the behalf of the town looks like," said Joanna Hilgenberg, who is also a member of Town Meeting. "Participation in projects like this is how people become community leaders. This is a worthy cause, and the plan deserves a chance to be put to the test."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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