Status of public library raises funding questions in Harpswell

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HARPSWELL — The town is withholding voter-approved funds from a local library association after town staff learned the library is no longer open to the public.

Harpswell residents in March approved more than $4,500 for the Harpswell Neck Library Association. The association, formed in 2012 as the Ash Point Library, had repurposed the library of the former West Harpswell School as a new public library.

But, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, “We (recently) became aware that they did not have any open hours.” In response, the Board of Selectmen on Nov. 12 voted not to release the payment.

Library volunteers said Monday that the library started having problems with public access after the Harpswell Coastal Academy moved into the school building in 2013.

“Before the charter school moved in, we were very available” to the general public, Donna Frisoli said. She and other volunteers staffed the library on weekday afternoons, when people could check out books from a collection donated from the former public school.

But after the library started sharing space with the charter school, there were “security concerns,” Frisoli said. “Generally, having the school open to the general public during the day is problematic.”

Tom Allen, who serves on the association’s board, echoed her sentiment.

“Nowadays, you don’t want just anybody walking into your school,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we had a real good opportunity to serve the public.”

So at the end of the summer, they decided to close. The space is now used as a school library by the Harpswell Coastal Academy.

The association wants to re-open at a new location at Mitchell Field, Allen said Monday. He said the library could temporarily use the gatehouse off Route 123 while the association looks to establish a more permanent facility near the waterfront.

“If we could make that space weather-tight and bring it back up to code … it would be a good intermediate space to be in,” he said. “The location, we feel, would be visible and fairly easy to monitor.”

The library association and Harpswell Coastal Academy would then look at leasing the nearby administrative building, which is larger, but needs more significant repairs.

Getting those town funds released, Allen said, “would hurry us along … the road to be open to the public.”

Frisoli said the money would go immediately into repairing the small gatehouse, which is filled with fishing gear and signs.

Frisoli said the association has about $1,000 on hand for repairs. She said she hopes selectmen will release “at least some” of the allocated funds.

“We would like to start (construction) before the snow flies,” she added.

Library representatives submitted a written request Nov. 30 to begin using the gate house, and planned to go before the Board of Selectmen Thursday, Dec. 3, to seek release of the funds.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said selectmen may schedule a workshop to discuss the proposal with the association.

As for the long-term plan to secure and lease space at the large Mitchell Field facility, Allen said he is confident about the library’s future.

“The wheels of town government, while they actually turn pretty smoothly, they don’t turn real quickly,” he said.

A public library on Harpswell Neck would fill a need not met in that part of town, Frisoli said. There are small libraries on Orr’s Island and in Cundy’s Harbor, but nothing on the neck.

The town gave more than $15,000 to Cundy’s Harbor library in 2015 and $13,000 to Orr’s Island.

The Harpswell Neck Library Association will hold a book sale Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Harpswell Scout Hall to raise funds for the move.

It’s up to selectmen to not only decide if the library will have access to town funds, but whether it will help with the move, too.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

The Harpswell Neck Library Association, which closed its Ash Point location to the public this fall, is hoping to move to a new location at the gatehouse of Mitchell Field, but has had its allocation withheld by the town.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.