UNITY, Maine — As was the case for so many people, Unity residents Jean Bourg and Melissa Bastien stuck close to home during the year of the pandemic.
But they wanted to do something more meaningful than perfect sourdough bread recipes and binge watch Netflix. So they started the ball rolling on the creation of a brand new Unity Public Library to be located in the former Maine Farmland Trust building in downtown Unity.
And although there are still some substantial hurdles to jump, the boxes of donated books in the foyer of the building they now own are, to them, a clear — and exciting — sign that they are getting there.
“There’s a lot of support for it,” Bourg, 75, a retired computer programmer, said of the library. “We love libraries. It’s a great project … It takes a lot to go from zero to a library, and it’s our way of not wasting pandemic time.”
But the task isn’t simple. There’s a library available to the town already, although it has been closed for a year. And at least one local official isn’t a big fan of the creation of a second public library, especially one whose organizers are asking for some financial support from the town.
“I don’t know that a town of 2,000 people needs two libraries,” Penny Sampson, the chair of the town’s select board, said last week.
Historically, Unity, and several other nearby towns, use the Dorothy W. Quimby Library at Unity College as their public library. Until a few years ago, Unity contributed various sums of money annually to the library, with the last contribution just over $2,000.
But that library has been closed to the public since March 16, 2020 and its future is unknown. Last summer, college officials said they planned to permanently move away from the traditional campus learning model, and the board of directors authorized officials to explore selling the 240-acre main campus in Unity, which has been closed to the public for months. Sampson said she hoped the college would reopen the library. Joe Hegarty, the Unity College director of media relations, said Friday that the college does plan on reopening it when it’s safe to do so.
However, even when the campus was open, Bourg said, the library hours varied according to the college calendar and there was little in the way of children’s programming or book discussions.
“The college library was not perfect as our library,” she said.
A new library would fill a critical need in the fabric of the community, she said. Although Unity residents have been traveling to communities such as Camden, Belfast and Waterville to use their libraries, it’s just not the same.
“They want their own library,” Bourg said.
To get there, the first step was to find the right building, and they believe they have. The former office building was built in 2012 on a reinforced concrete slab that can hold the weight of a lot of books, Bourg said. It is handicap-accessible, energy efficient, attractive and spacious, and located right next to the Unity Community Center and other downtown draws.
“Melissa and I have bought buildings before, and you have to renovate them,” she said. “This one is walk-in ready.”
The next step was to devise a plan. Bourg and Bastien are starting a new nonprofit, the Unity Public Library, to run the library. They will offer the whole first floor of the 38 School Street building to the library, rent free, for as long as the nonprofit wants to use it. They would like the library to pay for its share of utility bills. Upstairs, separate from the library, are two suites that the women intend to rent on AirBnb to pay the mortgage and other building expenses.
Because the building is privately owned, Bourg and Bastien will still pay property taxes to Unity. They do intend to ask Unity and several other nearby communities for contributions to the library’s operating expenses during their annual town meetings.
They have also submitted a petition to the town of Unity asking for a one-time sum of $50,000 to help get the library up and running. Those funds, which would come from the downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, would be spent on bookcases, a circulation desk, a sign, library software, a stipend for a part-time librarian and other necessary expenditures, Bourg said.
Money raised in the TIF district must be spent on economic development projects that benefit the town. For Bourg and Bastien, it’s clear that the new library would serve that purpose. They envision that it will serve as a gathering place with lots of resources, including dedicated business resources. They plan to offer workshops for job seekers and others in topics such as resume building, copyright law and more.
“It’s hard to imagine a town without this resource,” Bastien, a retired early childhood educator, said. “For me, it’s a community connection space.”
Others seem to agree. They already have nine people who are on the board of directors, and a team of about 25 volunteers, including three trained librarians, who are helping to do the work. And when they asked people to sign the petition it wasn’t hard, they said, easily getting nearly 100 signatures even during the pandemic.
They turned the petition in to the town on March 15, which they believe means the town will need to hold a special town meeting about the request for funding by May 15.
“It was an interesting cross-section of people of different political persuasions,” Bourg said. “There was across the board support.”
Sampson, the selectman, is not a big fan of giving the library $50,000 in TIF money. So far, the library group has operated independently, and without the explicit approval of or input by the select board. She also thinks it’s a big stretch to give so much money to a group that will operate in a privately-owned building, especially considering that the town of Unity has invested at least $250,000 in TIF funds in the community center since the 1990s.
“Some of the proposed activities at Jean’s library are some of the stuff that the Unity Barn Raisers [nonprofit organization] and the community center is already supposed to be doing,” such as serve as a community gathering spot, Sampson said. “Why we need an additional building to do those same things, I don’t know.”
She also pointed out that while she knows it’s not the same, the town of Unity does have three well-stocked Little Free Libraries.
Town officials are now checking into the legality of the petition, she said. If it’s accepted, the question about funding will be up to residents.
“Some people are against it and some people are for it,” Sampson said. “It will come down to a public vote as to whether this library receives town support.”
Bourg and Bastien believe that voters will decide in favor of the library.
“This is our project, but it’s not ours,” Bastien said. “It’s a community project.”