BREWSTER — There’s good news and bad news for plans to renovate the Brewster Ladies Library.
The project is sixth on the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ list of potential grant recipients with a strong probability of being approved for a $4.65 million award in January, Ladies Library Association President Joan Pernice said.
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The bad news while the town awaited news of the grant the projected construction costs of $10.2 million in 2019 have escalated to $16.4 million by 2024-25 when renovation is expected to be completed. The initial estimate dates from 2017 with construction projected for two years later. Applying annual escalators of 9% for 2020 and 2021, 8% for 2022 and 2023 and 7% for 2024 and 2025 produced the $16.4 million cost.
Looking at current construction trends (see below) this may still be an underestimate. Town Administrator Peter Lombardi said Brewster would spend $7,500 on a consultant to get a detailed cost estimate.
The project, which was conceived in 2015, includes transforming 5,000 square feet of basement- and lower-level space into a children’s area contiguous to the outdoors. The renovation would also improve handicap access, replace the elevator and create a new lower entrance. Moving the children’s area downstairs will create more adult circulation space upstairs as well.
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Costs up by $6.2 million
“We were quite surprised at these numbers,” Lombardi said at a July 25 Select Board meeting.
Select Board member Mary Chaffee agreed.
“The latest numbers are sobering,” she said. “If you could look at fine-tuning the costs, if there is any way to more conservatively plan the costs there would be more support in the community.”
Pernice, who agreed with that assessment, said the Ladies Library Association would hire a consultant to reach out to the community to determine which needs are prioritized before any final design is done.
“I hear a lot of comments that we have a 140-year-old senior center, we need a community center someplace, a safe place for people to go,” Select Board member Cindy Bingham said. “That should weigh in the equation as well. All the funds come from the same people.”
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Higher costs impacting other projects
Brewster’s library project is not the only one being affected by rising costs.
The Community Builders‘ 65-unit affordable housing development at 3 Jerome Smith Road in Provincetown added a lot to increase the site to 1.8 acres and increase the number of units from 57 to 65. However, in the past year, the project cost rose from $22.3 million to $37.8 million. Construction costs seem to be escalating faster than Brewster’s hypothetical escalators suggest.
Part of that was a June 2021 to June 2022 increase in the mortgage rate from 2.98% to 5.56%. But the biggest driver was the actual construction cost which increased by $11.7 million. Some of that was due to the extra units, but a lot was just inflation. Building materials were up 20% year to year and construction services were up 18.5%, according to Lindsey Gael of Community Builders.
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Interest rates, construction costs, labor shortage all factors
“The biggest impacts were the rising interest rates, inflation, construction and materials costs, the labor shortage,” Gael said as she asked the Provincetown Select Board to increase its contribution to the project to $3 million on June 13.
“There was a huge increase in the cost to finance the project in the last year as the 30-year mortgage is no win the high fives. There’s been an 18-20% increase in construction costs year to year. It’s something everyone in our industry is dealing with now,”
The extra $3 million from Provincetown was just one way the builders were looking to close the financing gap.
“The state is seeing this type of gap in all the projects that are going before them now,” Gael said. “They say they need municipalities to step up as well.”
Construction costs increased from $336 per square foot to $362. Construction on the Provincetown project is expected to begin in 2024, about when Brewster plans to start library construction.
With the Baker administration departing, Pernice anticipates all the final grants will be pushed forward and wrapped up by January. Brewster would then be notified funds are available. That starts a rapid clock for the town. The actual award would be in July 2023 and Brewster would need a final design in hand by then. The town has six months after the award to raise and approve all the needed funding.
Lombardi said doing the design would cost about $600,000. He suggested the town ask the Community Preservation Committee for half of that in December and the town could supply $300,000 from free cash – that will require town meeting approval in May 2023.
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Raising the $16.4 million for construction will be trickier. The grant didn’t escalate along with the construction costs, it is still capped at $4.6 million.
The Ladies Library Association has pledged to raise $2 million. Lombardi would like to ask the Community Preservation Committee for an additional $1.5 million for construction.
The town could contribute $1 million from the capital stabilization fund. However, at present there is only $915,000 in the fund. The town could add $250,000 at town meeting, but after that the fund would be largely depleted, Lombardi said.
Debt exclusion vote will be needed
“Using the stabilization fund as debt for projects like this is what it is for,” he said.
Finally Brewster would need $7.3 million, financed with debt. That would require a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion approved by town meeting and at the ballot box in autumn 2023.
The Ladies Library was founded in 1852, by local women who wanted to make their books available to those who couldn’t afford or didn’t have them. Construction was completed in 1868 and the façade of the library that faces Route 6A contains the historic elements of that original structure.
The last renovation was completed in 1995.
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“Libraries are really vital to communities,” Pernice said. “The library is constrained in what we can do within the spaces we have. The building is now at capacity for information technology.”
She said while actual visits to libraries are down virtual use across the internet has dramatically increased.
The renovation would create flexible spaces that could be used individually or become group spaces. The shelf spaces would be reconfigured, historic collection digitalized and made more accessible, information technology systems upgraded, air conditioning redone and electricity rewired.
“The building plan will enhance the library’s ability to operate efficiently and better serve the evolving needs of the community,” Pernice said.