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Energized Bixby Library relies on new plan, input to create changes

VERGENNES — Changes are coming to the Bixby Memorial Free Library.
Some of those are already evident: The Bixby Gala, a vital fundraiser and spring fixture on the Vergennes social scene, will return for the first time in many years to the Main Street landmark on June 23, while new employee Francis McGill has a new job description — public relations, outreach and social media coordination as well as assistant to Head Librarian Jane Spencer.
Other changes are coming soon and have been sparked by the library’s new strategic plan, which the Bixby board adopted in February after a year of deliberation.
By early 2018, Spencer said the library should have reconfigured its interior space to enhance children’s programming and create a technology center to bring together the Bixby’s computers, printers and Wi-Fi services, plus offer coffee.
Those improvements came as a result of earlier outreach, and Spencer said future changes — including in programming — will be motivated by ongoing efforts to learn how the Bixby could better serve the residents of its five constituent towns: Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham as well as Vergennes.
The strategic plan is driving much of what is happening, Spencer said.
“So many times there are strategic plans, and the committee says, here’s what we’ve done. And it gets filed away and nothing ever happens with it,” she said. “But we’re very committed to making sure that there’s a checks and balance system on the objectives and that we do our best to fulfill them.”  
For instance, on community outreach, one of the three central plan goals states the Bixby should: “Deliver library services, programs and collections that are data- or customer-driven.”
To meet that goal, the Bixby surveyed town meeting attendees earlier this month, getting 200 responses, and will also seek more responses, plus hold focus groups.   EXPANSION OF THE children’s area and services will be coming soon as the Bixby Library in Vergennes puts into action its new strategic plan.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
And the decision to enhance children’s and technology spaces came after residents singled out those areas in a 2016 survey.
“We’ve already begun to work on a number of the objectives,” Spencer said. “We’re evaluating all of the programs that we do, for instance, to see whether we should continue them. We’re looking to the community to see what they’re looking for, what their interests are, so that we can create programs that are more attuned to what they want.”
BUILDING WORK
Architects have already toured the building with Bixby officials to brainstorm how best to make use of existing space to accommodate an expansion of children’s programming out of the crowded back room and to consolidate technology into what Spencer called a convenient and “welcoming spot” for computer users.
“We’re just looking for some space-planning ideas, not to build onto the building,” Spencer said.
Meanwhile, a crucial $100,000 roof repair should also begin this summer, all funded by grants donations, and tax credits awarded to the Bixby that can be resold. 
“We had already received some tax credits,” Spencer said. “In December we found out that we were selected to get a Vermont Historic Preservation Grant for $20,000 that we had applied for in the summer. And just last month we heard that the Hoehl Foundation will award Bixby $69,933.”
Leaks from the roof had begun to compromise the library’s second floor, and the board had identified fixing it as the building’s most pressing need.
Once that issue is addressed, Spencer said she and the board can turn their attention to making functional improvements to the building.
“Once you’ve got the big problem areas taken care of in your building, then you can start thinking about raising money and using private funds and more grants to do other things to the building to make it more serviceable,” Spencer said.  
Top on that list is an elevator that would run from the basement level to the building’s second floor, which is under-used because access is difficult.
“We have space on the second floor, really beautiful space and lots of it, and the access to it (particularly for those with mobility problems) is not great,” Spencer said. “Even moms and dads and grandparents with kids in strollers find it rather difficult to come up to the second floor.”
The interior reconfiguration and roof repairs follow a number of other projects.
“Over the past five years we’ve repaired/restored all windows, redirected drainage from the parking lot, rebuilt a crumbling service entrance and created a second egress from the main floor to increase building capacity from 50-200 — all with privately raised funds and grants,” Spencer wrote in an email.
FINANCES
That new access, from the Bixby’s west-end porch, allowed the library to host the gala (which might be renamed the Bixby Ball — stay tuned) again after a hiatus and then several years at the Basin Harbor Club and one year at the Vergennes Opera House. The gala historically has helped boost the Bixby’s bottom line.
“We have a very challenging amount of money we want to bring in with this year’s event,” Spencer said, adding that Lynn Donnelly is the lead organizer. “She has many ideas for bringing back the gala the way it used to be, and many new ideas for things that we’ve never done before.”
Bringing McGill aboard did not add an expense, and Spencer hopes his outreach expertise will prove to be a net plus. He was hired about a month ago after another part-time Bixby worker, Carolyn Tallen, left on good terms. 
“It’s working out great,” Spencer said. “We’re really glad to have him here.”
The Bixby received good news on the financial front on Town Meeting Day, when residents in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Waltham backed an increase in per capita support for the library from about $19 per resident to $22. The statewide average of community support for libraries is about $30, but in the 1990s the average town per capita support stood at less than $5.
Spencer thanked the towns and said Bixby officials do not expect to increase their requests in the near future.
“We want the towns to know how grateful we are. It was a big deal,” she said. “We hope to be able to keep the same percentage from the towns, and at this point we don’t see any huge growth in the budget.”
If the Vergennes City Council follows suit when it sets the city budget in June, Spencer said town support will make up 64 percent of the Bixby’s annual operating expenses. Library officials believe that interest in the Bixby’s endowment, fundraising, grants and donations should leave the library in good financial health and protect the endowment’s principal. 
Spencer said the library’s finances have improved in recent years, and this year the board will almost certainly not have to touch endowment principal to make ends meet.
“The goal has been to stop doing that and get your financing really organized and in place so that you don’t need to be doing that,” she said.
Meanwhile, Spencer said, if the strategic plan has its desired effect residents should feel positive impacts.
“The changes will be to support programs and services that are meaningful and relevant to the community,” she said. “The really visible thing is there will be changes in the space.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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