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December 10, 2018  |  

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Supporters of the Campaign for the Blackstone, members of the Blackstone Board of Trustees, Capital Campaign Committee, Project Planning Committee, key local and state government representatives and many of the other movers and shakers who helped shape funding and changes headed for the library gathered on Dec. 6 for a groundbreaking ceremony to begin the $5.2 million renovation/expansion project.

Pam Johnson/The Sound

Supporters of the Campaign for the Blackstone, members of the Blackstone Board of Trustees, Capital Campaign Committee, Project Planning Committee, key local and state government representatives and many of the other movers and shakers who helped shape funding and changes headed for the library gathered on Dec. 6 for a groundbreaking ceremony to begin the $5.2 million renovation/expansion project. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

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The first spades of dirt go in the ground on Dec. 6 at the site of the Blackstone Library's 2,000 square foot addition that will be part of the $5.2 million upgrade taking place over the next 12 months.

Pam Johnson/The Sound

The first spades of dirt go in the ground on Dec. 6 at the site of the Blackstone Library's 2,000 square foot addition that will be part of the $5.2 million upgrade taking place over the next 12 months. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)

Groundbreaking Celebrates Start of Branford's Blackstone Renovation, Expansion Project

Published Dec. 06, 2018 • Last Updated 03:35 p.m., Dec. 06, 2018

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A celebratory groundbreaking ceremony on Dec. 6 has raised the starting gate on the $5.2 million interior renovation and lower level addition to Branford's historic, iconic James Blackstone Memorial Library building, originally constructed in 1896. Work is set to begin in two weeks, with the library to remain open during all phases of the 12-month project. The project marks the most significant work to the building since a major interior renovation in 1996.

Supporters of the Campaign for the Blackstone, members of the Blackstone Board of Trustees, Capital Campaign Committee, Project Planning Committee, key local and state government representatives and many of the other movers and shakers who helped shape funding and changes headed for the library gathered on Dec. 6 to mark the milestone.

Trustees president Robin Sandler welcomed several to the podium to share remarks, including State Senator Ted Kennedy Jr.(D, District 12), State Representative Lonnie Reed (D- District 102), First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, State Librarian Kendall Wiggin, Branford Community Foundation executive director Liza Janssen Petra, Community Foundation for Greater New Haven grantmaking/non-profit effectiveness director Jackie Downing and Blackstone Library Director Karen Jensen. Project management and project architect leaders also shared remarks.

Greeting those gathered in the auditorium, Sandler said the project will allow the Blackstone to efficiently deliver library services to the public, add a new and expanded children and teen area, bring in handicapped accessible bathrooms, create a ground floor access point through the new foyer lobby from the rear principal parking area, create a gathering space on the new terrace adjacent to auditorium, bring in more computers and meetings rooms, and add an enhanced sound system for "...this magnificent auditorium."

"All of which will enable the Blackstone to continue provide the public the ability to access and exchange information. And with information, opportunities are created," said Sandler.

Reed, who will complete her five-term legislative career at the end of 2018, recalled how the Blackstone's services, staff and supporters served as a resource for many during the depths of job losses and other transitions brought by the recession.

"This library jumped into that breach [helping] to connect to the Internet, to connect to jobs, to feel like there were possibilities out there," said Reed. "And this is a whole new chapter, which is really, again, responding to a need of Branford."

Kennedy, who completes two terms of service as Branford's state Senator with the end of the 2018, thanked town and library leaders for their work.

"Not every library in Connecticut is supported by the local budgets of the towns," said Kennedy. "And the taxpayers of this town continue to support this library in a way that's really unparalleled across the state of Connecticut."

After all of the ceremony's remarks were shared by the days' speakers, they were joined by still more key supporters in donning white hardhats at the site of the addition outside the library, where the group tossed the first spades of dirt to help begin the project. Past trustee president Andy McKirdy, who helped shepherd the project and fundraising efforts for some nine years prior to the end of his tenure earlier this year, gave a toast to the library to close the celebration.

The construction and renovation work will take place in six phases over the next 12 months, with the library open for operation during all phases, said Project Manager Michael McDonald of Downes Construction Company (New Britain).

"We have about 12 months of work that will commence in about two weeks," McDonald said on Dec. 6. "We'll have about six months to build the new addition, and we'll do series of interior renovations, some minor and some not so minor. Those will begin on the second floor --we'll be about three months up there, with that level closed."

"Then we'll move in the second three-month segment to some selected work on the (main) floor," McDonald continued. "And then the last half of the project will be a series of projects of some significance at the lower level."

Project Architect David Stein (AIA, principal Silver Petrucelli & Associates, Hamden) spoke to crafting and assembling the addition with the same integrity as the original building received when it was constructed in 1896.

"Projects like this, that are so architecturally and historically significant and embedded in the community, rarely cross architects' desks," said Stein. "So when awarded this project, we knew the responsibility of designing onto this building and maintaining that overall integrity of the architecture. Our approach was to reflect on the past, but also to move forward to the future, related to functionality of programming and the continued mission of the library."

The Blackstone staff plans to move the upstairs Children's Room to the library's auditorium while work takes place in the top level of the building; followed by other shifts of departments during work to renovate the main floor and the final phases of work taking place on the ground floor.

Once complete, the project will add a new, 2,000 square-foot addition that will be visible along the property's Cedar Street side of the building and from the back of the library. The addition will create a new main entrance which will have a handicapped-accessible vestibule leading to a lobby with a circulation desk and the new children's and teen ground floor areas. Renovation plans also call for the installation of dedicated computer lab for patron use. The construction of the addition will also create a new, exterior terrace space (on the roof of the addition), accessed by exterior stairs as well as from interior doors at the auditorium level.

The town-bonded project's $5.2 million cost will be partially defrayed by a $1 million Connecticut State Library grant, together with over $800,000 secured as of November, 2018, by the Campaign for the Blackstone. The town will responsible for the rest of the project cost, approximately $3.4 million.

Sandler thanked Cosgrove for helping to bring the library's needs to organizations which helped support the project and capital campaign as well as his work in assisting with helping the town government address the project.

Cosgrove thanked Town of Branford staff including town engineering and finance department leaders, as well as the Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for "all playing a critical role" on the town level to assist the project; as well as thanking Reed and Kennedy for their support.

Cosgrove noted the library expansion and renovation gets underway at a time when the Town of Branford is currently involved in a number of significant projects, including the renovation and expansion of both the Community House/Senior Center and Walsh Intermediate School.

Cosgrove said the common thread is that all of the projects are geared toward "...improving the quality of life of our diverse community for all residents of Branford."

He added that the projects also have their "unique challenges" and the one facing the Blackstone was that the original mission of serving the public from the iconic structure, established over 130 years ago, continues into the future.

"This structure is truly an iconic structure," said Cosgrove. "The term often gets overused; but there really are very few, and we're fortunate to have one here in Branford. This is a building that inspires, that provides a sense of place for our community and for everybody that comes in through these doors. I just want to congratulate the Blackstone board, and the group and the team, that really were able to meet that challenge. And I look forward to seeing the project move on, and being back in here [for] the ribbon cutting."

Library Director Karen Jensen thanked past library director Kathy Rieger (2003-2012), the earlier and present-day trustees, the campaign committee, and Friends of the Library; as well her staff, the town, local organizations and the public for supporting the project, which started thanks to a grant to explore options in 2008.

"We have so many people to thank for getting us to this point... there truly is not enough time," said Jensen.

"This project is exciting and important because it allows us to function more efficiently and effectively," she continued.

Since the library was last renovated in 1996, annual visits have more than doubled; from 86,000 made 22 years ago, to over 178,000 last year, said Jensen. She also noted total circulation of library materials has increased from 155,000 per year in 1996 to over 240,000 last year.

"And the role of libraries has changed," said Jensen.  "Where we were just beginning to offer computer access in 1996, now, internet connectivity has really become a basic need. So having a dedicated computer lab will mean that we can respond to the changing needs of all of our population."

Jensen said the staff is also "thrilled" to have an expanded children's room, which she termed a very important need.

"I feel so proud to work in this community where all of you appreciate the importance and significance of our public library. You all use it so well. The project allows us to grow with you, well into the 21st century, and we look forward to working together to fulfill our mission [to] help ensure the Branford community is an educated, enriched community."

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