RFPL to host three-day grand reopening in May


BELLOWS FALLS -- The Rockingham Free Public Library's grand reopening in early May will be the culmination of more than two years of trials and tribulations for the century-old facility.

And to celebrate the occasion, the library's staff and trustees have scheduled a three-day series of events for community members of all ages to mark the official completion of the building's renovation, which began in the fall of 2012. The library has been through a debacle in the past two years, as Baybutt Construction Corp. -- the company tapped to be the general contractor of the renovation work -- had its contract terminated by the Rockingham Selectboard after hitting some financial problems and failing to pay sub-contractors and Library Director Célina Houlné was controversially fired in September 2013.

According to Youth Services Librarian Sam Maskell, the celebration will begin at 6 p.m. on May 8 with a presentation of Alan Fowler's photographs chronicling the library's renovation. Following the display, preservationist and photographer Bill Hosley will present "More Than Books: Libraries, Community, and Historic Preservation," a slideshow and discussion about 200 years of American Library service at 7 p.m. Maskell said Hosley will talk about the role libraries play in their communities. There will also be morning storytime at 10:30.

May 9 will feature a free 7 p.m. screening of the "The Book Thief," a movie set during World War II and centered around a young German girl who takes books the Nazis plan to burn and shares them with a Jewish refugee hiding in her foster parents' house. The library's Teen Advisory Council plans to host a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" event at 4:30. Live music and art, photograph and historical collections displays are scheduled to be featured at 10 a.m. on May 10 and the ribbon-cutting will take place at noon, with celebratory cake, door prizes and speeches from community leaders. That day will also feature a special storytime at 11 a.m., face-painting, Lego building, and Mother's Day craft activities.

"We're trying to do things for all ages," Maskell said.

She told the Reformer she is especially excited for the scavenger hunt planned for May 9. She said this will get people to explore the renovated building and help them learn to the nooks and crannies of the library. There will also be staff-guided tours.

"I'm thrilled. It's been a traumatic year," Maskell said. "But to get to this point, to have a staff that is still working so hard together and still so professional, it's really wonderful to be back to this point."

Carolyn Frisa, the vice chairwoman of the library's board of trustees and the chairwoman of their historical collections committee, said her committee (including Trustees Pat Fowler and Carol Blackwood) has teamed with staff members and the Friends of the Rockingham Library to plan the three-day series of events. Frisa she everyone is excited to put the library's recent troubled past behind them with a grand re-opening.

"It's really nice to finally have that on the horizon. It's going to be big celebration," she said. "It's been a group effort."

Baybutt was selected as the $2.9 million renovation's general contractor toward the end of 2011 but work came to a halt about a year later when subcontractors refused to continue their jobs and insisted Baybutt had not paid them for work already done. Rockingham town officials terminated a contract with Baybutt after the Keene, N.H-based corporation's financial troubles came to their attention. The company did not take out a performance or a payment bond, which acts as a sort of insurance contract and was a project requirement from the town. Owner Frederick L. Baybutt filed for personal bankruptcy in February 2013 and Colchester-based Engelberth Construction Inc. was awarded the work of finishing the renovation.

The stairs leading up to the main entrance's solid slab doors have been resealed, which will prevent water from getting in behind them and affecting the granite. There is also a parking space right next to the building compliant with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, in addition to the ADA parking spots along Westminster Street. The youth services department now has much more room and the building's elevator is functioning perfectly.

During the time it was closed for renovation, the library's services were operated out of the former Merchants Bank location (known to staff members as the "bibliobank") in The Square.

Houlné's termination in September added to the library's saga, as the trustees voted 5-3 to let her go. Then-Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love, then-Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright and members Paige Pietrzak (who has since resigned from the board), Hope Brissette and Laura Senes voted to fire Houlne while Frisa, Fowler and Ray Massucco voted against the motion. David Buckley was unable to attend the meeting but was eventually replaced by Elayne Clift, a staunch Houlné supporter. The trustees voted the same way to uphold their decision following an obligatory public hearing for Houlné to defend herself.

A selection committee made up of trustees and various community members failed to make a recommendation out of 19 viable candidates and the process must start again, though Houlné has filed a lawsuit against the trustees to challenge her termination.

Maskell said anyone interested in replacing Pietrzak on the board can send a letter of intent to the library or to Trustee Chairman David Gould.

According to the library, the Rockingham Library Society was established on Oct. 28, 1799, by a small group of settlers from the village of Rockingham, which had a population of roughly 1,000. Shares were sold for $1 apiece. The building grew throughout the decades and it officially became the Rockingham Free Public Library on Sept. 6, 1887. Following some successful fundraising, the Library Room opened in 1888, on the first floor of the then-newly opened Bellows Falls Opera House.

Rockingham citizens voted in 1908 to purchase land on Westminster Street, to provide an annual allowance for library maintenance and to accept $15,000 from philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to build a library. Houlné has previously told the Reformer the Rockingham library is one of only four in Vermont built with Carnegie money. A children's room was added in 1929 and in 1968 a two-floor addition was built to expand the room and provide a new meeting space. The library's current top-floor meetingroom was finished during the renovation. An accessible entry and elevator were added 2003 with funds from the Freeman Foundation.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.


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