This November, Narragansett voters will not only decide who they want to represent them as president, in Congress and in the state legislature: they will also decide the future of their town library.
The Maury Loontjens Memorial Library, located in the Narragansett Pier, is looking to move into a larger building for more space. The new building being considered, known as the Belmont building, is in a parking lot adjacent to where the current library is located.
“Right now, the space that we have we really have outgrown, so we can’t really move into the new sentry of the modern library here,” Library Director Patti Arkwright said. “That space over there would be almost double to what we have here, so the community and the Library would benefit to have that building.”
The library conflict dates back over a decade. Originally, the library started planning to add a functional second floor to their current building in 2008. After looking at the potential costs of doing so, the library decided to build a new building, reasoning that the $4 million cost of adding a floor could be used to pay for a larger building instead. According to Laurie Kelly, the chair of the library’s Board of Directors, the library went in front of the Town Council in 2015 with four alternative plans. The Town Council chose for them to stay in the Pier, either by renovating their current building or by moving into the nearby Belmont building.
“Part of the reason for staying in the Pier originally is that we don’t have a good downtown in Narragansett, and there was always the hope that that area would anchor more businesses and get more of a commercial structure that would really help us have more of a downtown,” Kelly said.
Even if voters decide that the library should move into the new building, however, the town would need to refund the library’s budget before they could make the move.
According to Kelly, Narragansett Town Council President Matthew Mannix has cut the library’s budget during the last two fiscal years. Kelly said the library used to receive $841,000 a year from the town’s budget. According to the 2021 Narragansett town budget, the Library is now receiving $498,000. As a result, the Library is struggling to maintain the hours that they would need to be recognized as a public library by the state.
“Not only did he want to stop us from moving, then he wanted to stop us from being able to function as a library,” Kelly said. “We’re about on gas fumes now, and are maybe running out of all our money by somewhere around December.”
Kelly called the issue “bipartisan,” saying that chairs of the local Democratic and Republican parties joined together to endorse the project.
“The same Town Council president wrote a letter to the editor saying that both chairs were ‘political hacks and losers,’” Kelly said.
Kelly is also running for Town Council this year.
The Town Council did not return a request for comment by the time of publication. However, in an interview with the Narragansett Times in January of 2019, Mannix expressed his concern for how the expansion or movement of the library would affect the town.
“I was very open [to the project],” said Mannix. “I was for it. But the problem was, the deal is not a good deal for the town. I just expressed my views on that. You guys don’t agree. I think people need to realize it’s just a disagreement.”
In addition to Mannix, councilmembers Jill Lawler and Richard Lema voted against moving the Library, according to the Independent. Both Lawler and Lema have issued statements that their opposition to the Library’s move is based on financial concerns. Lawler and Lema issued those statements as part of their re-election campaigns, while Mannix is not running for re-election.
If voters do decide that the Library should move into the Belmont building, Arkwright expects that the process should take about three years.
“We would have to start kind of from scratch and go out to bid for consultants, architects, that type of thing, before we could even start to redo the building,” Arkwright said.
As for the current building, according to Arkwright, its future would lie with the town’s government.
“We do not really have a say in what happens [to this building]- the Library board does not control this building, it belongs to the town, and there really has not been any conversations about what would happen with this building,” Arkwright said.
This was published in the Oct. 22, 2020 edition of the Good Five Cent Cigar. A follow-up piece after the 2020 election can be found here.