ELK RAPIDS — There’s been a plot twist in the fate of the Elk Rapids District Library.
Library board members unanimously agreed Thursday to re-commit to a capital fundraising campaign for a planned $4.7 million expansion and renovation. It’s a course reversal after two weeks ago publicly discussing whether to suspend or altogether abandon the project.
The board discussed whether to return donations because the COVID-19 pandemic impacted planned benefit events and stalled fundraising efforts. At least one donor even requested a refund, officials said.
But the possibility the library expansion could be abandoned raised enough concerns across the community that more than two dozen people showed up to Thursday’s meeting at the governmental center. They sat physically distanced in chairs scattered across the large meeting room, everyone wearing a mask.
Many spoke in favor of the library project and encouraged the board to push forward with the effort.
“We can come up with this money,” said Royce Ragland. “As a donor, I don’t want my money back. I want a new library.”
She wasn’t alone in that opinion.
Rick Bellingham said he is a significant donor to the library expansion and he also doesn’t want his money back — he wants the library project completed.
“Start making the library the true heart of the community,” he said.
The village owns the structure and rents the historic Elk Rapids Island House to the library, which serves the village and also Elk Rapids and Milton townships.
Two years ago the Elk Rapids community was divided over whether to go forward with changes to the historic home built in 1865 by lumber baron Edwin Noble. Some supported the effort and others preferred to keep the structure’s footprint in its current configuration.
The planned expansion is expected to include a glass-enclosed walkway that overlooks Elk River on one side and Grand Traverse Bay on the other side, which will connect the historic Island House area with the new, larger building.
Ultimately, both the library board and the Elk Rapids Village Council voted to pursue a 6,320-square-foot expansion plan. A condition was at least $3.2 million would be banked toward the project before work would begin.
The campaign has already raised approximately $1.5 million. The effort reached the $1 million milestone — about 20 percent to the final fundraising goal — in February last year, as previously reported in the Record-Eagle.
At the June 11 meeting, library board members discussed whether it may be prudent to suspend the campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic until the economy improves. They subsequently agreed to hire an attorney for a legal opinion about whether and how donated funds could be returned.
That legal opinion may be rendered moot now that the board voted to continue to campaign.
Yet the thread of concern about the pandemic’s impacts to the campaign continued at this week’s meeting.
Library board and capital campaign committee member Karen Simpson said perhaps it would be best to be sensitive to donors keen to fund critical needs during the pandemic crisis, as well as realize not everyone is in a position to donate right now.
However, both Simpson and library board Chairwoman Barb Johnson said the board should have decided whether to carry on with the library expansion before seeking a legal opinion about returning donations.
Simpson recently had resigned as chairperson of the library’s capital campaign committee — as she similarly did recently from the Elk Rapids Downtown Development Authority Board — but was re-appointed to the committee Thursday. She will not serve as chairperson.
Library board members Julia Pollister Amos and Dick Hults both said they want better communication and transparency from the capital campaign committee moving forward.
“The board needs to have oversight on the fundraising committee,” Pollister Amos said.
“The public needs to know what we’re doing,” Hults said.
For starters, he wants to see the donor list and said he hasn’t been able to get a copy from the campaign committee. That’s so he can better determine whether another $3 million can even be raised from among the small Lake Michigan shoreline community, Hults said.
Simpson said she questions why he needs it and that furthermore, donor lists are “not something that we pass around.”
More information about the library’s capital campaign can be found at www.elkrapidslibrary.org online.