NARRAGANSETT – A month after a council meeting during which a motion that was criticized as restricting free speech was rejected, many supporters of the Narragansett Public Library project read aloud one message in support of the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library earlier this week.
Forming a line at the town hall assembly room’s podium stretching to the back of the room during the public comment portion of the meeting, library advocates presented a detailed timeline of the project and took aim at the council that has halted its completion.
The Maury Loontjens Library Board of Trustees prepared the message, which was read to the council in three-minute intervals by a number of residents, project advocates and board members.
“In the early part of this new century, it became increasingly apparent that the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library of Narragansett was too small and antiquated to serve the people of the town,” said resident Dr. Albert Alba. “While many of our staff have master’s degrees in library science, a major part of their day was rearranging the furniture in an attempt to meet the scheduling needs and public programming access.”
“A major Rhode Island foundation, which consistently supported the library with grants, notified us that they found it increasingly difficult to justify upgrades in our current building and that we should refrain from filing for aid until our building program was in order,” Alba continued. “This started the library board on a mission to examine other libraries in Rhode Island and see more clearly the shortcomings of the current building and the potential for a new, state-of-the-art facility to serve the residents of Narragansett and all of its patrons better.”
Advocates of the library initiative feel disenfranchised by the current council, which boasts a majority that does not support the current iteration of the new public library project and recently attempted to sell the town-owned Pier Marketplace property envisioned for its buildout to an out-of-state developer. More than two-thirds of those who voted approved a $5.8 million bond for a new public library during the 2016 election. Shortly after the 2018 election, however, it was made clear the newly elected council did not support the project, with a motion approved in a split vote along majority-minority lines putting the town-owned property up for sale.
Prior to a meeting last month in which it was announced that would-be buyer Carlos Mouta would not be completing the $2,070,145 purchase from the town, town council president pro tem Jill Lawler placed a motion on the Oct. 7 meeting’s agenda attempting to establish behavioral guidelines at council meetings, which included the banning of sticks (many library supporters carry signs attached to small sticks), and was seen by many residents as an attack on free speech. Lawler’s motion, however, did not carry the support of the other members of the council majority and was rejected that night in a 1-3 vote with one abstention.
After Alba had introduced the first words of the long library message Monday, councilor Richard Lema, a member of the majority not in support, disputed some of the numbers and contested the idea that 50 percent of the project cost would be reimbursed by the state, as was suggested by Alba.
“Construction costs are eligible for 50 percent reimbursement of expenditures up to the amount of $300 per-square-foot for new construction or $250 per-square-foot for renovation and remodeling,” said Lema. “The Gilbane building would be a remodel, so that would be $250 per-square-foot, so it would not be a 50 percent [reimbursement].”
While many have disputed the numbers and their interpretation, the Narragansett Town Council majority earlier this year failed to acknowledge a $500,000 matching pledge donation from Narragansett resident and ex-banking CEO Terrence Murray, causing a sentiment to form with many project advocates that the fiscal reasoning the majority had supplied for blocking the project was not genuine.
“The majority voted against a resolution thanking a member of our community for making a wonderful and generous pledge,” said resident Amanda Moss during public comment, a point she repeated for emphasis.
In total, about 15 speakers in support of the library project read a portion of the comments. At various points, some portions of the timeline were disputed by the council, with town council president Matthew Mannix remarking at one point that there was “ a lot of misinformation.”
Some residents spoke out against the project after the reading of the timeline had concluded, including resident Robert Combs.
“I haven’t heard one person in construction come up here and say that building will work out great,” said Combs of the Pier Marketplace’s 18,500-square-foot former Belmont building. “The parking is terrible down there. They don’t get it. That building was built for a supermarket where people can go in for 15 minutes and then come back out. These people who go into the library are there for hours. They don’t go in and come out. You’re not going to have parking there. What are you going to do on Sundays? Have someone police the lot?”
Combs also said he had attempted to use the library’s printers earlier that day, but “could not get in the door” because library staff and advocates were crowding the space rehearsing for the reading of the timeline. This caused a wave of outcry from library project supporters in attendance, who spoke from the audience that Combs’ claim was untrue.
With Mouta’s departure, the outcome of the project and property is currently up in the air. Pier Liquors purchased the upstairs portion of the building and is likely using the space for offices, however, the main space of the structure, its first floor, does not have a clear future. Many library supporters have pointed to the exit of Mouta as an opportunity for the council majority to reform its position and complete the library project in the Pier Marketplace, though that seems unlikely. Mannix stated in a meeting last month that the future of the property would have to be addressed by the council during its November meetings.
The council meets next on Monday, Nov. 18.