Whether it's $25 or $1,000, community contributions to help build a better Blackstone Library will now be matched up to $100,000, thanks to a matching grant unveiled March 28 by Branford Community Foundation (BCF).
The $100,000 matching grant represents the largest single contribution to an organization in BCF's history, said BCF Community Investment Committee James Perito.
"We're very excited," said Perito. "The Blackstone is such an amazing part of our community, and has been for so many years. Now, I think it's important for us to play a role in helping it towards its next decades."
The grant spans a period of four years, but BCF board members are hoping to see the same energetic community response made to a two-year, $35,000 matching grant given to Branford Historical Society (BHS) in 2016. Community members stepped up to BCF's challenge with enough donations to match $35,000 in a year's time and help BHS buy the historic Harrison House.
The Blackstone renovation project's estimated $4.8 million cost includes a $1 million state library grant and a hoped-for $3 million appropriation to be bonded by the Town of Branford later this year. The BCF matching grant will help contribute to an $800,000 campaign for the Blackstone goal set by the Blackstone Board of Trustees.
"We're at $275,000 now, made up of gifts from our board members, the Friends [of Blackstone Library], and a couple of bequests, including one for Susan Cosgrove Barnes's family," said Blackstone Library Director Karen Jensen. "So with the matching gifts from the community, we'll be almost halfway toward our goal."
In 2016, the Town of Branford designated $50,000 help the Blackstone Trustees fund the renovations next phase of concept and design. Jensen said final design plans are nearing completion and will be presented during the trustees' $3 million bonding request to the Board of Finance this spring. Final approval would require a vote of the Representative Town Meeting. The project architect is Silver Petrucelli & Associates (Hamden). If all project funding falls into place as anticipated, the Blackstone's renovations could begin by spring 2018, said Jensen.
Meanwhile, in the coming weeks and months, news of BCF's $100,000 matching grant will be supported by programs and events at the library to help encourage community contributions.
"The gift from the Branford Community Foundation is super important to us and we're so grateful. Our partnership will help us get community support for this project," said Jensen. "We already have a lot of community support, especially from people who use the library every day, who've seen our plans take shape over the past four years. They ask me, every day, 'When is the renovation going to happen?"
Built in 1896, the Blackstone Library is a Branford architectural icon. The renovations won't change the marble façade facing 758 Main St, but a modest building expansion on the Cedar Street side will exchange the current exterior walkway for a new, windowed main entrance and lobby accessed from the rear parking lot. The new main entrance will be topped by an outdoor terrace accessible from the library's auditorium.
Inside the building, innovative shifts, reconfigured interior spaces and technology upgrades will accommodate 21st-century library patrons. The plan calls for moving the children's section to expanded ground floor space to also include a dedicated teen area with a café and 11 new computers. Adult fiction will remain on the ground floor. The mezzanine area (rotunda) adds a 15-computer lab, bringing the new total of Internet access computers at the Blackstone up to 32. The top floor will be redesigned to include two new meeting spaces, with a larger meeting room created by enclosing the auditorium balcony.
"The project will mean that we can act like a 21st-century library, which is books, but so much more—technology and meeting space and space for children to learn and grow. The renovation will accomplish all that," said Jensen.
Campaign for the Blackstone gifts and pledges may be made at blackstonelibrary.org, where more details and renderings of the renovation and expansion are also available. Campaign Pledge/Donation forms are also at the library.
Saying she has confidence the Blackstone Trustees will continue to work to secure larger pledges and gifts toward the $800,000 campaign goal, BCF Executive Director Liza Petra said the BCF matching grant can work to "galvanize and energize those gifts at the smaller level."
"The intent of the grant is to really encourage individual community members to join in this partnership. We will match every gift up to $1,000 that a local Branford community member provides," said Petra. "The idea is that we want to encourage and excite and energize the community. People think of philanthropy as needing to be an Oprah Winfrey or a Bill Gates. You don't. You just have to care enough to provide a gift. I have no doubt, when Branford community members see a need and see an opportunity to support the community, that they will step forward and do that."
Providing a grant of this scale is a significant milestone for non-profit BCF, founded more than 30 years ago. Petra credits Perito and his team with a year-long study to develop the $100,000 four-year matching grant, and the entire BCF board for its ramped-up commitment to developing funds to invest in the community.
"This is our largest grant in history," said Petra. "Thanks to the generosity of the community, we now have over $2.2 million in our endowment, and we really want to increase our impact in the community. When this partnership opportunity came up with the library, it seemed as though it was a really perfect opportunity for us to create a meaningful impact and demonstrate the support of the community for such an institution in the town."