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Plans are in the works for a massive new library in downtown Missoula, but everything depends on the will of Missoula County voters.

The Missoula Public Library Board of Trustees has signed a land-swap agreement to exchange the library’s current property at 301 E. Main St. for full city block directly to the east, which is owned by Missoula businessman Terry Payne.

The deal would give the library room to build a 121,000-square-foot facility to move into by November 2019 if voters approve a bond for up to $30 million this fall. Seven rental houses that are mainly occupied by college students sit on Payne's property.

The property swap would take place after November and would be contingent on the library raising enough money for construction.

The library board unveiled its vision for the proposed new headquarters Tuesday during an update with the Missoula County Board of Commissioners. The conceptual designs include a open-air terrace on the fourth floor with green space and expansive views to the south. A ground-floor cafe would face the street, and the new library would also house Missoula Community Access TV, the spectrUM Discovery Area and the Children’s Museum Missoula.

Conceptual design of new library

The conceptual designs for the new Missoula County Public Library, which is contingent on voters approving a bond for up to $30 million, include a large fourth-floor terrace and meeting room. 

The library board will vote at 6 p.m. Wednesday on whether to ask county commissioners to approve placing a bond for up to $30 million before voters in November. The exact language of the bond wouldn't be finalized until August if the commissioners give the green light.

The Foundation for the Missoula Public Library has raised $800,000 so far and hopes to contribute $5 million or more toward the price of construction. Any private funding would decrease how much taxpayers need to chip in if a bond is approved.

If a bond is passed by voters, the library would take ownership of Payne’s property and would have to demolish the rental houses by early January 2017 for insurance reasons. The tenants of the properties have been notified that they may need to move.

Payne would then take ownership of the library’s current building and lease it back to the library. Construction of the new building would begin in November 2017, and if all goes according to plan, the new Missoula Public Library would be completed by November 2019. Payne would then be in possession of what he acknowledges would be an “empty, old building.”

Payne already had his property on the market when the library approached him about a swap. He said he doesn’t have any specific plans for the library property if the deal goes through.

“The property will continue to be occupied until construction is completed, so you just wait and see what the situation is in three or four years,” he said. “You wait and see what is the best thing to do with the library. Whatever happens, there is going to be something that is in concert with the city’s desire for that district down there and the wishes of the community.”

Payne said his motive for the swap had a lot to do with helping the library avoid shutting down for two years to construct a new building on its current site, something library leaders fervently hoped to avoid.

“The primary thing was to be able to help the library achieve what they want to accomplish,” he said.

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Missoula County’s main library, built in 1974 and meant to last 30 years, averages more than 1,500 daily visitors. As the hub for more than 1 million checkouts every year, it is also the state’s busiest public library.

“We are anticipating filling the need for building a new modern library,” said Rita Henkel, chair of the library board. “Our current library no longer fulfills the needs of the public, and its heating and air conditioning systems waste taxpayer dollars every day we operate them. We are fortunate to have an agreement that will avoid moving to a temporary space, interrupting service or down-scaling our programs during construction.”

The library board has hired a partnership of A&E Architects of Missoula and MSR of Minneapolis to work on the project. After a year of analysis, community assessment and public input, they've created conceptual designs – technically called a preliminary rendering – for the library.

The existing library is 42,000 square feet, and the new one would be 121,000 square feet and four stories tall. By comparison, the new $32 million Missoula College under construction on East Broadway will be 100,000 square feet and four stories.

Each of the four floors will have twice the area of those at the Missoula College building, according to A&E principal Chris Martison, the lead designer on the project. Parking for 87 spots would be below the main floor of the building, which would be raised four or five feet for better vehicle clearance.

The building would take up the entire block. Spaces inside would be available for local nonprofits to host meetings and the top floor would have a 300-seat community room. Plans call for large windows on every side of the building, and Henkel said the building will be environmentally friendly and LEED-certified to the highest standard possible within the budget. The south side of the building would face a city-owned trail system that connects to Kiwanis Park and the Riverfront Trail system. The north side would face the MCT Center for the Performing Arts.

“It will be a whole connector for that whole neighborhood and area, and it will be great,” said Barbara Theroux, president of Friends of Missoula Public Library. “The key part of this is collaboration with other cultural icons in Missoula.”

The bond initiative committee within Friends of MPL, chaired by local attorney Scott Stearns, has hired a marketing company to promote passage of the bond and has registered with the Montana commissioner of political practices as “Yes to Missoula Libraries.”

The library has held several public meetings and open houses to take public input on the design, and the next one will be April 1 during First Friday art walk events at A&E's office, 222 N. Higgins Ave.

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Missoula County voters have approved several large bonds in the past two years. Last year, a $70 million high school bond and an $88 million elementary school bond were approved. In 2014, voters approved a $42 million County Parks and Trails bond.

Honore Bray, director of the Missoula Public Library, said she’s confident voters will approve the library’s request for funding.

“You have to be confident to go through all this,” she said. “We’re excited about it.”

Sue Stone, director of the Seeley Lake branch of the library, told the commissioners that an expanded central library would benefit all the branches by increasing the offerings available and expanding access to things like best-selling books.

“With a new main building, there would be better benefits and a better collection at Missoula,” she said. “From their current offering of 200,000 items, that would expand to 600,000. That means branch patrons would have immediate access to new items. It would provide parenting resources countywide."

Bray and Henkel said that in places like Seattle, the public library draws tourists and serves as a cultural attraction that boosts the downtown economy. They believe that could happen in Missoula.

Bray said the library board hired an architecture firm six years ago to conduct a feasibility study on the existing building.

“They found out that all of the heating, cooling and lighting is outdated and needs to be replaced,” she said. “We’re very cramped and have no extra room, so when we buy a new book we actually have to discard an old book. And we send books out to our branches, and we’re still very crowded."

Bray also said that’s when the library started looking at options, and the board has been working on this project for five years.

“It’s not something they did without a lot of thought,” she said.

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