NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – The owner of the Pier Liquors store that leases space in the Belmont building owned by the town is at odds with residents gathering signatures to support a plan to ultimately move Narragansett’s library into the building.
But both sides are still talking, and holding out hope that a compromise is still possible, with time.
Debra Manni said she wants residents to understand that signing the petition circulated by library advocates will close her family business, Pier Liquors.
But Manni also wants people to know they support the library moving to the former Belmont market location at the Pier, she said Tuesday.
“For weeks we have been meeting with elected officials, members of the community and library advocates attempting to offer a compromise to bring a matter that has divided our community for far too long to closure,” Manni said. “We have offered to drop our purchase and sale agreement with the town, we have made concessions on square footage and all we have asked for in return is a long-term lease. The library and the liquor can coexist and be good neighbors to each other.”
Manni said the parties had met and agreed to the concept of a long-term lease, and that Susan Buonanno indicated she supported a compromise, and would present it to her Love Your Library group.
Manni said she had dropped an effort to purchase an area of the building on the floor above her store, instead saying it should go to the library. All she wants, she said, is an 1,100 square-foot ground-level space adjoining the store for use as a loading dock area.
“Throughout the week we had negotiated in good faith and we are merely separated by a few hundred square feet and five parking spaces,” Manni said. “Because we have no agreement we are forced to initiate our own campaign to ensure residents understand the petition they are signing will close Pier Liquors if it gets on the ballot and passes in November.”
She set up a table outside her store with information about how she said the petition would affect her business. Her main concern is wording in the petition that, she said, would prevent Pier Liquors from leasing its current space from the town and essentially gives library advocates the authority to decide which business will operate from the town-owned building.
“I had library advocates camped near my business last week engaging with my customers and they were not being forthcoming with residents that by signing the petition they are not just supporting the library, but they are closing my business,” she said. “My strong sense is that most people in this town support compromise and do not want to see this matter re-litigated all summer. The library advocates deserve a win and they can have it right now. They don’t need another ballot measure and we don’t need the town continuing to spend taxpayer money on legal fees.”
Buonanno, a former council president who is again a candidate for Town Council, is circulating a petition to get enough valid signatures with the goal of getting a question on the town’s November ballot that would support building a new library at the former Belmont/IGA site, which the town purchased in 2018. Voters in 2016 approved a $5.8 million bond referendum to construct a new library, although it did not specifically name the Belmont site.
But a change in the Town Council later in 2018 tilted in favor of proponents of selling the town-owned Belmont building and renovating the existing library instead.
Efforts by the council, headed by President Matthew Mannix, to sell the building stalled and the matter ended up in court last year.
“The ‘move the library at any cost’ crowd has always intended to grab the Pier Liquors space and kick Pier Liquors out of the Pier,” Mannix said Monday, referring to the petition initiative. “Pier Liquors does not want to move. It simply wants to be able to transfer its license to other family members down the road.”
The council voted Monday to renew the license through November 2020 and remove a restriction on transferring ownership.
“If you want to put the library question back on the ballot, it does not mean that the liquor store has to come down,” Councilman Patrick Murray said. “It’s not one thing or another. That’s another red herring by the anti-library camp.”
Last month, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Buonanno’s efforts to petition voters for a ballot item, after the Town Council had blocked its progress.
Buonanno said her Love Your Library group supports small businesses in town as well as a new library at the Belmont property.
“If Pier Liquors would like to stay in their current location they absolutely should be able to exercise that right,” she said. “Love Your Library agrees to a long-term lease in the current location, which shows that we want to be good neighbors and want them in their current space.”
There is much debate on the liquor store space, which is town-owned property, and how it should be used in the future, Buonanno said.
“Many residents want the entire liquor space for the new modern library and others feel like it should be maintained so Pier Liquors can continue their business in the center of town. I believe Narragansett residents can have both and we must compromise in order for this to happen.”
Supporters of the library move had initially delivered at least 200 signatures to Town Hall, Friends of Narragansett Library President Mary Ann Grintchenko said. The town’s deadline to gather 1,000 valid signatures from voters is July 6, she said. The group has scheduled daily signing sessions outside the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library and has been at the Belmont building as well.
Grintchenko said she’s very concerned about the Pier Liquors issue.
“The fact is that we have never impinged on their space,” she said. “We have not done anything to hurt their business or take space away from them. Many of us are friendly with them and shop there.”
Grintchenko said, though, that the store’s attempt to buy part of the Belmont building she said was acquired for the library site, and then more recent efforts to negotiate a lease with additional space, would put the library plans in jeopardy.
“While compromise is certainly possible, to give up library space will jeopardize our state reimbursement money,” she said. “Our effort is simply to hold on to what our 2016 bond identified for the new library.”
Likewise, Narragansett Library Board of Trustees President Laurie Kelly said Buonanno’s petition seeks to preserve the building and all property the town purchased from Gilbane in 2018 to build a state-of-the-art library.
“For 452 days this initiative was deemed invalid by the town, and only now, after the courts have decided this is a valid and legal document, has Pier Liquors offered to renounce the purchase and sale agreement they signed in August 2019, to take approximately 3,000 square feet of library space,” Kelly said. “While it is our sincere hope that a compromise can be reached before the November election, it cannot involve the liquor store increasing their space and parking by taking from the legally purchased library space. The entire 12-year project to build a library was predicated on obtaining the 50% reimbursement from the State of Rhode Island, and the state has been clear about the space and the operating budget the library needs.”
Kelly also said that recent Town Council cuts over the past two years to the library’s budget threaten to close the library for good.
“Compromise on the Belmont building cannot and should not be made in such a way the library cannot apply for state money, and that is the current compromise offered,” she said.
Manni said she understands the frustration of the library advocates, and said a compromise gets the matter out of the courts.
“We could settle our differences in a month if everyone negotiated in good faith,” she said.