Jim Kenyon: In Cornish, uncertainty over next chapter in library saga

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 03-14-2023 7:02 PM

The distance between Cornish’s public library and the town’s shuttered general store is only about 200 yards.

But when it comes to whether the town should keep the library where it’s been for 113 years or move its contents across Route 120 to the general store site, residents are miles apart.

About the only thing the two sides agree on is that doing nothing is not an option. The George H. Stowell Free Library, built in 1910, is inadequate — and has been for decades — the way it is.

The red brick building has no indoor plumbing (unless you count the compost toilet in the basement) or running water. Lacking wheelchair accessibility, the building also doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although not a warrant article per se, Stowell Library’s fate will be determined at Saturdays annual Town Meeting.

A nonprofit called Cornish Community Initiative, or CCI for short, is asking voters to approve an article that calls for renovating the former general store and making it the Cornish Library and Community Center.

If the article passes, the nonprofit has five years to come up with an estimated $2.4 million for the renovations. Once the work is done, the building would be turned over to the town. (The building’s owner has already agreed to donate the property with the caveat that voters must approve CCI’s proposal this month.)

To drum up votes, supporters created a seven-minute YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjayE5bmrxU)

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that features a cross section of residents.

“I think in 10 years, we’re going to look back at this and realize it’s a great thing for the town,” said Jim Fitch, a farmer whose family has lived in Cornish for eight generations.

Not to be outdone, a group called “Save the Stowell” (https://savethestowell.org) enlisted the help of Patrick Sheary, a librarian at the nonprofit National Democratic Institute in Washington, who wrote about browsing the rare books in Stowell’s historical room as a teenager.

“The present purpose designed and built library generously given to use by a benefactor should remain where it is and continue to be a source of community pride,” Sheary wrote.

As its name indicates, Save the Stowell believes the library, “a building in excellent condition, can be modernized to meet the needs of the town.”

At the 2022 Town Meeting, voters signed off on the town acquiring a small piece of land adjacent to the library to be used for a septic system and well.

A seven-member Cornish Library Exploratory Committee, established by the Selectboard, exemplifies the extent of the rift.

After studying the two options for more than a year, committee members remained split. In a 4-3 vote, the majority argued that renovating the former store “better fits the needs of a modern library and would be a valuable resource for the Cornish community.”

In a “minority vote report,” committee member Heidi Jaarsma wrote Cornish needs to “step back for a moment and ask which facility will best serve the town sustainably over the long term. Construction is a one-time expense. In a hundred years, will anyone remember who built or renovated our library?”

Keeping the Stowell’s doors open is about “protecting the distinctive character of the building, maintaining and retaining the workmanship while adding modern facilities and more accessibility for the citizens of Cornish at a reasonable cost,” according to Save the Stowell’s website. The costs of upgrades range from $400,000 to $1.8 million, depending on the project’s scope. A private fundraising drive and grants could eliminate or reduce the cost to taxpayers, Stowell supporters say.

Since private donations will fund the renovations and the property would be a gift to the town, CCI counters that its plan will cost “zero taxes.” The group has already lined up $500,000 in pledges, resident Colleen O’Neill told me.

I doubt it was her intention, but O’Neill finds herself at the center of the firestorm. (O’Neill was married to writer J.D. Salinger, arguably Cornish’s most famous resident and definitely its most reclusive until his death in 2010.)

O’Neill, who has lived in town since 1988, owns the building which once housed the Cornish General Store. Like other small towns in New Hampshire and Vermont, Cornish has struggled to keep its store afloat. After closing in 2013, the store reopened under new management in 2017, but that didn’t last.

A few years ago, Stowell Library trustees approached O’Neill about renting part of her building for its programs. The discussion led to O’Neill offering up the building for a new library and community center.

“I’m trying to do something good for the community,” O’Neill said when I called her Monday. “But I don’t want to push something on the community, if that’s not what it wants.”

The Stowell is a “beautiful, charming building,” she added. However, it’s “2023 and to not have a building that is accessible to everyone and doesn’t have indoor plumbing is mind-blowing.”

If the library moves, the building could be used by the town’s historical society, which is cramped for space next door in what was once the town offices.

Along with housing a larger library, the former store would feature a community center that could offer, among other things, educational programs for seniors and family game nights.

“I never dreamed it would become so divisive in our community,” O’Neill said.

It’s not just about the library changing addresses. Opponents say they’re worried about the impact on property taxpayers. After the proposed building opens, the town will be responsible for its upkeep.

Two businesses — a chocolatier and an antique stove shop — would be displaced. Tenants in the building’s two affordable apartments would also have to find new places to live.

“There aren’t enough apartments for lower-income folks as it is,” said Larry Dingee, a former Selectbboard member who served on the exploratory committee and opposes the move.

The outcome of Saturday’s vote will like come down to which side can get its supporters to make the trek Cornish’s elementary school gym for the 10 a.m. meeting The vote will be by secret ballot, but residents must be present when the article is raised.

“We hope it’s a civil discussion,” said O’Neill, who serves on CCI’s board.

The debate has gone on long enough, but I don’t think it’s been a bad thing.

It shows that people in Cornish are passionate about libraries, which is more than could be said for the leaders of the Vermont State University System, which is gutting libraries at three state colleges in favor an “all-digital” model.

And unlike in others parts of the country, Cornish’s library debate isn’t about banning books that address race, gender or sexuality.

In Cornish, both sides make compelling arguments and seem to have good intentions. The challenge will be what happens after Saturday’s vote.

Can the two sides come together? Will they join forces — and resources — to make sure the town has a vibrant library, wherever that is, moving forward?

The book is still out.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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