It’s not always easy to give something away, particularly when it’s a building — even a historically significant building.
In 2010, a member of Danville’s Pope Memorial Library Board of Trustees was attending a gathering in St. Johnsbury. She found herself chatting with Peter Crosby, president of the Passumpsic Savings Bank. Crosby mentioned that he was interested in donating a building to the library. A building! The board was so busy raising funds to keep the library in operation, that the thought of another building seemed overwhelming. Her reaction was, shall we say, not enthusiastic. Anyway, it was just an idea. Right?
Crosby was not deterred. A few weeks later, he called the library, and suggested to the librarian on duty, that he would appreciate a call from Shirley Richardson, chair of the library’s board of trustees. She called, and was somewhat puzzled when Crosby suggested they meet at the Caledonia National Bank building, which was long out of use but still attached to the Passumpsic Bank building on Route 2 in Danville.
For those who don’t know, the Caledonia National Bank was held up in 1934 by a group of gun-toting robbers, led by Eddie Bentz, who’d come out of “retirement” to do the job. The robbers got away with a large sum of money, and Eddie scurried across the state border to New York, not knowing that bank robbery had just been made a federal crime. In fact, Eddie’s heist was the first one under the new law. Two years later, the feds tracked him down and arrested him in Brooklyn, N.Y. He refused to rat on his cohorts, and was sentenced to a long term at Alcatraz. Danville became a little famous for a while. Back then, you got more than 15 minutes.
But memories of the old robbery had faded by 2010, when Shirley Richardson arrived at the old bank for the meeting with Crosby Crosby and Craig Lantagne, senior vice president of the Passumpsic Savings Bank.
Crosby offered to donate the Caledonia National Bank building to the Pope Memorial Library – flat out, no strings attached, a gift. A very big gift.
Shirley is a person who can keep her cool. Maybe her jaw dropped a few millimeters, but she thought to ask if the deed to the building would be transferred. She wondered if maybe Crosby intended a gift of “use.” But no, the deed would be transferred.
They toured the building. A large room in front was still equipped with 1930s-era antitheft installations -- electrical wire, menacing spikes, and gun ports at each teller’s station. They peered into the open vault. It was enormous, sheathed in solid steel over a foot thick, but beautiful in its own way. They looked in on a number of smaller rooms in the back, and more rooms on a mezzanine floor. The basement was dry. Everything seemed to be in good shape. Shirley began to see some exciting possibilities for expanding the cramped library.
“I’ll have to take it to the board,” she said, still keeping her cool. “Of course,” Crosby replied.
At that first board meeting, the trustees greeted the announcement with a mixture of excitement and wariness. It was a hugely generous offer, sure, but no one wanted to “dilute” the library’s mission. But what was the library’s mission, really? And how might it necessarily change in the digital age? The board had to find answers. They put together a Strategic Planning Commission, involving Danville citizens of all kinds – merchants, town leaders, thinkers, ordinary folks. The commission was charged with the task of considering the Pope Memorial Library’s future in Danville.
Other steps were taken. At the next town meeting, a survey of the community’s opinion of the library helped clarify the public’s view. A focus group of the town’s “movers and shapers” met and considered what more the library could do to enhance services.
The groups returned with one clear conclusion: If the library was going to continue giving Danville’s citizens access to the rapidly changing cultural world, more space had to be found.
But “mission dilution” wasn’t the board’s only worry. Could the library afford to take on another building? What would maintenance cost, and what shape was the building in? As one board member said, “we don’t want to sink the library.” To answer these important questions the board consulted financial experts, fund raisers, architects, the Vermont Historical Society, and the Preservation Trust of Vermont. After carefully examining the structure ,architectural consultant E.H. Danson produced an architectural, structural, mechanical, and electrical systems evalutation. Yes, a few repairs needed to be made, and the building had to be upgraded for handicapped access, adequate parking, bathrooms up to code, etc., but essentially it was in good shape.
The board met again. The conclusion: It might work. The cost of making the building usable was within reach, if additional funds could be raised, and if the project was undertaken in phases. The board members clarified the phases in a brainstorming session, and in the process listed how the building could be used as a full-fledged community center. As their vision became clearer the more skeptical board members began to come around.
The board sent a letter to Crosby. The trustees were grateful for the bank’s extraordinary generosity, but they needed still more information before they could accept the offer.
Parking? Crosby said the Passumpsic Bank’s parking lot could be used.
Handicapped access? Two board members went to a workshop on writing grants in support of historical buildings and were assured that money was available as soon as the library had title to the property.
It was, the board realized, a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to develop a civic community center that would serve Danville and surrounding communities.
They read an article in the Planning Commissioners’ Journal, written in 2009 by Wayne Senville, a Vermonter himself, who felt that libraries were the “heart of communities,” particularly rural communities. Senville noted that public libraries help people of all ages and incomes “read books, go online, find jobs,” and “inject a healthy dose of vitality into downtown, main streets and neighborhood centers.” But to be fully useful they need to expand into full community centers where people can meet, hear a lecture, have a party, conduct a conference. And they need space to do these things.
The board tested the fund-raising waters by approaching a few potential donors, and were encouraged by their enthusiasm and pledges of support. The Passumpsic Savings Bank even supplemented their already amazing offer of the building with a generous donation. The trustees too began to make their own personal pledges. Nevertheless, more funds needed to be raised, and the board decided to start a full capital campaign.
Then, in May of 2012, excited about what it could mean for the town and region, and satisfied with the answers to their initial doubts, the board voted unanimously to accept the Passumpsic Savings Bank’s wonderful offer. The Danville Select Board and Development Review Board were informed. Transfer of the title is expected to occur within the month.
It is a big present for the people of Danville and the region.
Woody STarkweather is a member of the Pope Memorial Library Board of Trustees.