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City council approves long-delayed library expansion

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Laura Kraegel
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KUCB
The Library Expansion Project was initially adopted in Jan. 2020, but the plan was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was picked up again the next year, and the city received bids in November. The lowest one came in at around $6.5 million dollars, a bit lower than the original estimate.

The Unalaska Public Library is getting a face-lift. The city council voted 4-2 at Tuesday night’s meeting in favor of expanding the library, a project that had stalled out after its initial approval nearly two years ago.

The Library Expansion Project was initially adopted in Jan. 2020, but the plan was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was picked up again the next year, and the city received bids in November. The lowest one came in at around $6.5 million dollars, a bit lower than the original estimate.

At their meeting, council members discussed the benefits of the expansion, but weighed the effects of spending more than $6 million at a time the city is already aiming to cut costs. The loss of tax revenue from crab fishery reductions and the voters’ rejection of a sales tax increase has some city leaders concerned.

Estkarlen Magdaong, a Library Advisory Committee member and city employee, was one of around a dozen people who addressed the council in support of the expansion project. And so was her 3-year-old daughter, Eddy Soleil.

“The library is very important for me and [my] mama,” Soleil said. “Please move forward with the library project.”

Proponents of the project say an expanded library will bring many kinds of value to the city, both financially and socially.

M. Lynn Crane, a longtime Unalaska resident and chair of the Library Advisory Committee, spoke about the social capital a library brings to a community.

“I shared with council members before the countless studies, over many decades, by many different researchers and institutions, that demonstrate that the return on investment on public libraries is about five dollars for every dollar spent,” Crane said.

Karen Kresh, the island’s librarian, spoke about the importance of libraries not only for the community of Unalaska — but also the impact libraries had in her life.

“I grew up in rural Alaska. For the first four years of my life, our family didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have running water until I was 12. But I did have access to the Fairbanks Public Library, a beautiful place of idea and potential. That library expanded my world and imagination,” Kresh said.

“This is the reason I believe in the power of libraries,” she added.

Kresh — who has supported the expansion project since it first received funding in 2015 — says she’s thrilled that the project received approval.

Kresh says they haven’t yet determined a timeline for the expansion, but that they plan to develop one in the coming weeks. Once the contractor gets the green light to begin construction, they will have 310 days to complete the project.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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