By Ian Haupt
Since Birch Bay voters twice showed their opposition to fund an estimated $6.5 million library project, Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) has been looking for ways to utilize its $2 million of state funding to offer more library services to the area. Last month, the WCLS board of trustees decided an interior remodel of the Vogt family home as the best step forward.
In a June 21 regular board meeting, WCLS deputy director Michael Cox presented renovation plans for the Vogt family home to be made into a library branch. The plans, estimated to cost $2.6 million, show a first-floor renovation with full site improvements that include additional parking spaces, a book return, signage and an ADA accessible entrance. While there will be no exterior changes to the homestead, the plans call for demolishing existing outbuildings behind the home to make room for more parking, according to the meeting documents.
During the meeting, the board submitted a request to the state department of commerce for a project scope change of the Library Capital Facilities Project grant. If approved, WCLS can utilize the nearly $2 million grant, which expires June 2023, for construction costs.
Original plans for the proposed Birch Bay Community Vogt Library included constructing a $6.5 million new building at the site. To do so, WCLS planned to use the $2 million, donations and set up a taxing district for the remaining $4 million. But voters shot it down in two narrow 60 percent supermajority votes.
After the votes failed, Gary and Cindy Lou Vogt, who sold the house to WCLS, wrote a letter in The Northern Light that said it was their understanding the original home would be used as the library. WCLS executive director Christine Perkins responded in a letter saying that in the sale agreement WCLS promised, to the extent reasonably possible, to incorporate the existing house on the property or its design elements into the library building.
WCLS has since taken the home’s “historic and sentimental value” into account, according to meeting minutes. WCLS staff and trustees considered building a temporary modular structure, or portable building, at the site. However, Cox said during the meeting he had little faith a scope change for such a project would be approved, and Perkins confirmed the state funding must go toward a permanent solution.
Cox said during the meeting WCLS can deliver full library services at a smaller scope than was originally planned through a remodel of the current 1,500-square-foot first floor.
In a phone interview, Cox stressed the importance of the application approval.
“We get one chance at a scope change project,” he said. “I don’t think we are going to have another chance to use these funds.”
Cox said he doesn’t know how long the application process will take. He said a department of commerce representative told him it could take anywhere from three weeks to eight months.
Volunteer grassroots-group Friends of Birch Bay Library (FOBBL) has raised over $200,000 for the library project through several years of community events and donor contributions. State representatives helped FOBBL secure the $2 million grant, which was dependent on FOBBL raising the remaining amount. If the request is approved, WCLS will have a community design development process, where Cox will meet with Whatcom County government and the Birch Bay community to work out the details of the renovation. He said at that point WCLS will have a better idea of how much the project will cost in total.
FOBBL president Dianne Marrs-Smith, who is also Lynden’s library manager, said the group is looking forward to having extended library services available for the Birch Bay community. “We feel really good about it,” she said.