by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – After the select board declined to provide additional emergency stopgap funding, construction of the Jeudevine Library expansion was put on hold until 2022.
The project hit a roadblock when the USDA required a 10% contingency fee for cost overruns –– twice the amount budgeted for contingencies by the project’s architect. An additional $600,000 could be coming to the project in the fall through Sen. Patrick Leahy’s earmark, but it is not guaranteed.
The project had already seen a 50% increase in material costs due to COVID-19-related price increases. With that in hand, the library retooled its plans to “take out everything we can and still have a usable building,” said Jeudevine Library Trustee Chair Jodi Lew-Smith at the time.
The project was still over budget, so in May the select board signed off on a guarantee of $200,000, with a caveat that the town did not expect to actually spend the funds, but instead have the library find ways to fill in the gap. Last Thursday, Lew-Smith told the board that to obtain a notice to proceed from the USDA the library would need another $249,388. It asked the board to increase its commitment to $493,000. Lew-Smith said all other options had been exhausted, and fundraising was “tapped out.” With the earmark expected in the fall, the project could be financially set by the spring, but some timelines relied on construction commencing in 2021. A point of major concern was a donor who gave $200,000 to the project with the condition that construction begin in 2021. The trustees were uncertain if the donor would accept a delay.
Vice chair Ceilidh Galloway-Kane asked if the library could ignore the USDA ultimatum by not accepting its $157,000 of funding. Lew-Smith said there had been no consensus on that, but it was deemed unwise to put the USDA in an adversarial position as the earmark funding goes through that agency, and the USDA provides grant opportunities the library might want to use in the future.
While Galloway-Kane said she was convinced the project was a good thing for the town, she voiced some reservations. “Basically, we’re committing to an additional $500,000. I just don’t know where that’s coming from,” she said.
Chair Eric Remick said that “While I really want to see library move forward, I feel like the last time you came to us, we went way out on a limb to the point where I was teetering on the edge of being comfortable with it, because it was an awful lot of money, but on the other hand it was going to get the project through,” he said. “Now, I’m feeling what you’re looking at the town to cover is nearly the bond amount again. It’s almost that much more money. I guess I’m feeling a little uncomfortable committing the town potentially to twice what they voted for in a bond vote.”
Member Elizabeth Dow asked what the town’s fund balance “looked like,” and it was determined the town could probably provide the funding, but it would be tight. In the end, only Dow and Shari Cornish agreed the town should provide the additional backing and the request was denied.
Lew-Smith’s concern was that if construction did not begin in August, the project would essentially go back to the drawing board. The library would incur additional expenses from the architect. The project had already pushed Middlebury-based contractor Breadload Construction, LLC past their bid’s expiration, while another piece had been delayed due to COVID-19.
With the board’s denial of the request, the expansion will not be completed in 2021 and the project will go out for re-bid.
Trustee Ross Connelly said that “fundraising is easier when you have a tangible project.” In his view, the delay would create a public perception and credibility problem. He compared it to one of Hardwick’s major fires where the rubble sat for a long time before anyone did anything about it. “Just seeing that pile of rubble on the street for two years” was not good for the town, he said.
“The voters came through [with the bond], and said, ‘yeah, let’s do it,’ and all of a sudden we say, ‘we’re not going to do it.’ [The voters will think] ‘There it goes again, it’s a screw-up.’ They see the senior center’s been torn down, there’s a hole in the ground, they want to know, ‘what’s it going to look like?'”
The hope is that by the spring the earmark funding will be secured, and the other fundraising and grants will remain intact despite the delay.
“In 1868, Hardwick, which had a Grand List of $5,000, bonded themselves for $60,000 to support a railroad,” Dow said before the meeting closed. “That’s 12 times the Grand List. I’m amazed at the courage of those people, and it paid off. There would have been no granite industry without that railroad.”