Thomas Branch of library to get $2 million in HVAC, other upgrades

The Thomas Branch of Westchester Public Library, at 200 W. Indiana Ave. in downtown Chesterton. AMY LAVALLEY/photo

The Thomas Branch of the Westchester Public Library is getting a refresh.

The Porter County Council during its Feb. 22 meeting approved the spending of more than $2.2 million from the library’s Rainy Day Fund for a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, as well as new lighting, ductwork, ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights.

The work will require periodic building closures but the library will be able to provide curbside services.

While Lisa Stamm, the library’s executive director, admits the improvements are nothing sexy, they are badly needed and haven’t been switched up since the main branch, at 200 W. Indiana Ave. in downtown Chesterton, was constructed 47 years ago.

“This is the original duct work. We’re having issues with it. It’s been longstanding and is decades overdue,” she said, adding that the HVAC system can’t sustain another winter season.

Maintenance crews and the library’s previous director – Stamm took over four years ago – have done a good job of piece-by-piece maintenance work, said Kathy Cochran, vice president of the library board, but the HVAC system at the Thomas Branch is obsolete .

“Replacing the obsolete heating system is going to pay for the heating system in seven years” through better energy efficiency, Cochran said, adding that the new equipment also will have a more thorough air exchange system and better ventilation, something folks are paying more attention to since the COVID-19 pandemic.

LED lights to replace the fluorescent ones now in use will reap a payback in utility costs in two years and provide better lighting controls, she added.

“The responsible thing to do with the physical plant assets of the library is to maintain them,” Cochran said.

The timing, as the library and the rest of the world comes out of the pandemic, is not ideal, Stamm said, but the work is a necessity.

“It didn’t make sense to rip out all the ceiling tiles (for the ductwork) and not replace the lighting, so it’s become an enormous project,” she said.

Supply chain issues because of the pandemic have made it difficult to pin down dates for the work, including when the rooftop HVAC system might be ready for installation.

The library works on an 18-to-20-month planning cycle for its programs but Stamm said library officials can’t get exact dates for when the work will occur, so can’t plan around the project.

“It’s very difficult for our staff,” she added.

The pandemic proved the library could pivot and continue to provide services, Stamm said, but library officials want to be transparent and also want patrons to know there will be periodic closures, even if she doesn’t know yet when those will be.

“It’s going to be malleable,” she said.

Regardless, library staff will be on hand for curbside book pickup and drop-off “so patrons don’t lose access,” Stamm said, adding, “Can I predict how long these temporary closures might be? nope.”

Bidding and contracts for the work took place before Stamm appeared before the County Council. Though the library has its own board, the state’s Department of Local Government Finance requires oversight by the county’s fiscal body, which is the council.

The community has been both patient with and supportive of the library since the pandemic began two years ago and Stamm hopes that continues through the construction project.

“They’re grateful but everyone is tired. We’re hoping they can extend their grace through these question marks that are part of (the renovation work),” she said.

The rooftop HVAC units might be available for installation in July, which would interrupt the library’s summer reading program. Once the work begins, Stamm said, it will likely extend into next year.

The library staff is thinking about alternative locations for some of the programming that might be disrupted by the work but Cochran said “it has to be the right kind of space because it has to be comfortable enough, especially for children.”

The Rainy Day Fund collects up to 10% of the unused funds from the library’s annual budget each year, specifically for urgent projects, Stamm said. The last couple of years, 3% or 4% of the library’s budget was shifted into the fund, which now has a balance of about $3.2 million.

The Hageman Branch, at 100 Francis St. in Porter, recently got a new roof and the facility is in fairly good shape, with the greatest need at the Thomas Branch. A recent comprehensive review for both branches prioritized the work that needed to be done, Cochran said.

“We realize there will be some interruption (in service) but the overall payoff for the community is very high for taking care of this building,” she said.

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