By Oliver Lazenby
After more than 10 years of advocating for an addition to the Blaine Library, Friends of the Blaine Library (FOBL) found a way to speed up the process. The group offered $50,000 to hire an architect or design firm to plan for a library expansion.
The Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) plans to issue a request for bids this month, and the city of Blaine – the owner of the current library property – has partnered on the project as well. They hope to have design drawings and a cost estimate for expanding the 5,400-square-foot building to about 12,000 square feet by the end of the year.
The Blaine Library has been in its current space since 1988. In that time, the population of the city and the surrounding area has more than doubled.
“The building itself was formerly a public works maintenance shed,” said WCLS executive director Christine Perkins. “It wasn’t ever made to be a library so it has some shortcomings. It hasn’t kept up with modern library infrastructure.”
The library’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of space.
“There’s definitely demand for more meeting space in the library. Computers are restricted due to a lack of space and electrical and infrastructure concerns. We do have people who get a little frustrated by the noise level and lack of a quiet study area,” Perkins said.
FOBL was motivated primarily by the lack of space, said vice president Pat Kingshott. The group raised most of the $50,000 to hire an architect in the last three years with the help of several large anonymous donations, she said.
To determine an appropriate size for a library, WCLS uses a target of 0.7 square feet per person in the community, a guideline established by the Public Library Association.
WCLS estimates based on 2036 population projections for Blaine and the surrounding area (they looked at areas south and east of Blaine not including Birch Bay) suggest 12,000 square feet is an appropriate size for the Blaine library.
That’s based on a projected 2036 population of 18,417 people in the area, said Mary Vermillion, WCLS community relations manager.
After hiring an architect, WCLS will plan a series of community input meetings for the library this fall.
“What we’re envisioning is a really robust community input process like we had in Birch Bay, because we really need to hear from the public about what features they’d like to see in their expanded library in Blaine,” Perkins said.
The timeline is much faster than the future Birch Bay Vogt Community Library’s planning process; the library system and Friends of the Birch Bay Library spent about 18 months designing and planning that building. WCLS is hoping it can work faster having learned from the Birch Bay process, said Michael Cox, WCLS deputy director.
Also, the current site of the Blaine library has fewer archaeological and aesthetic concerns than the Birch Bay library site, which is near the water on land heavily used by Native Americans, and many in the community wanted it to retain the look of the craftsman house on site.
With a design and financial target in place later this year, FOBL would be responsible for raising money for construction, possibly with the help of the city of Blaine. WCLS would provide extra furniture and equipment for the expanded library.
Perkins said the future Birch Bay library wouldn’t reduce the need to expand Blaine’s library; the population numbers factored into the ideal size of the Blaine Library include Blaine and the surrounding area, but not Birch Bay. Birch Bay is also growing and the state Office of Financial Management projects it will have a population of more than 13,000 by 2036.
Still, if both Friends groups are fundraising at the same time that could impact donations from those who would give to both projects. WCLS is working to coordinate the two groups’ fundraising efforts. The Birch Bay library will take about $4.7 million to build. Washington state’s 2019-2021 budget includes $2 million for the library.
“We’ve had lots of great conversations with both Friends groups and they both understand the situation very well and are interested in making sure both projects succeed,” Perkins said. “We’re lining up some meetings for us to all figure out who’s doing what and when.”
As part of its Strategic Economic Initiative to improve downtown’s economy, the city of Blaine conducted a survey where residents ranked 44 local economic objectives from highest priority (recruiting downtown business) to lowest (realigning Grant Avenue/14th Street). Expanding the library ranked 13th on that list.
Blaine city manager Michael Jones said the city is interested in the project not only because it is important to residents, but also because of the library’s potential as an economic driver.
An updated building would add to the growing collection of new or remodeled buildings on the north end of downtown, which includes Starbucks, Rawganique and the new visitor information center.
“A larger library with expanded services would attract more users and encourage more downtown activity,” he said. “Downtown activity promotes more downtown activity; people going to the library might stop for coffee or lunch or go shopping.”