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Gloucester gets state help toward library expansion

Artist rendering of the view from the northwest corner on Dale Avenue of the Sawyer Free Library.Rendering by Oudens Ello Architecture provided by Sawyer Free Library

Gloucester’s Sawyer Free Library is closing in on a decades-long goal of updating and increasing the size of its facility with help from new state funding.

The state Board of Library Commissioners announced July 7 it is providing Gloucester $9 million for the library’s $28 million renovation and expansion plan. The grant would grow by $316,052 if the project meets green building standards.

Separate from that grant — which is contingent on the library covering the project’s remaining construction costs — the Massachusetts Cultural Council in May awarded the project $200,000.

Library officials meanwhile have begun discussions with the City Council on their request for a city loan that would cover the full project cost and allow Gloucester to access the $9 million state grant. Sawyer Free, which is Gloucester’s public library but owned by a nonprofit corporation, would repay the loan with the state grant and private funds.

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“With all the developments of the last several months the project has so much traction and so much momentum,” said library director Jenny Benedict.

The project involves a complete overhaul of the library’s 1976 main building on Dale Avenue and construction of a connected 15,000-square-foot addition behind it.

“It’s very exciting to see the potential for Gloucester to have the library that it deserves,” she added. “With this project, we demonstrate to our residents that we believe in them, we value a democratic society where information is available to everyone, and we want to have a public library for our community to share.”

Providing the council authorizes the loan — a vote is expected in October — the library plans to break ground early next year. Benedict is confident the library can repay the city, noting that about $14.5 million in state and private funds have so far been committed to the project.

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In anticipation of the project, the library will move In September to a yet-to-be-announced temporary site.

Benedict said library officials opted to relocate then since even if the council rejects the loan, the conditions of the building render it a risk to public safety and the library’s collections and equipment. If the larger project cannot go forward, the library will explore other building options.

The library encompasses a wood-frame house built in 1764 by Thomas Saunders and dedicated as a public library by philanthropist Samuel Sawyer in 1884; a 1913 brick-and-concrete stack wing; and the 1976 building, which since its construction has housed all the library’s public services.

Since at least 2000, the library has pursued efforts to update its facility, which officials say suffers from outmoded building systems and a layout that offers inadequate handicapped access, poses public safety problems, and is ill-suited to modern technology.

In 2007, city voters defeated a $7 million debt exclusion tax increase for a proposed project. In 2017, the library sought and was awarded the current grant from the state Board of Library Commissioners, and placed on a waiting list for the money.

But the library’s plan then — which involved replacing the 1976 building with a new one — drew opposition from community members, with many arguing the existing brick-facade building better fit the historic character of Dale Avenue, according to board president Mern Sibley.

“So we went back and redesigned it,” Sibley said, an intensive two-year process. She said the resulting new plan has met with wide community support.

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The expanded library would feature new and improved amenities including a 110-seat community room, a dedicated teen room, a digital maker space, a sound recording studio, a library history center, a quiet reading room, and a 16-seat conference room. The 1913 wing also will receive upgrades. Work is already underway on a separate, smaller restoration plan for the Saunders House.

“The library is going to be an amazing community resource,” Sibley said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

Artist rendering of the Sawyer Free Library's planned 15,000-square-foot addition, extending toward School Street.Rendering by Oudens Ello Architecture provided by Sawyer Free Library