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Provo honors Academy rescuers

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Julie Roper didn't like watching the old Brigham Young Academy slowly crumble.

"Every time I drove by I kept thinking, `Somebody should do something about this,' " said the Provo woman who lived just east of the dilapidated building.That somebody turned out to be Roper, who along with her husband, Matt, and their three children helped save the academy's Education Building from demolition. The family was recognized Monday at a ceremony unveiling construction plans for the Provo City Library at Academy Square.

The city intends to renovate the once-abandoned structure and construct a new low-rise building behind it with $22.2 million in public and private funds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation called Academy Square the most significant unrestored building west of the Mississippi.

The night before a $16.8 million city bond election for the library project, the Ropers threw together a honk-and-wave rally on the corner of University Avenue and 500 North. It didn't take long until members of the Brigham Young Academy Foundation, the group urging passage of the bond, noticed the sign-toting family and friends.

"Some academy people showed up and dragged me into this," Roper said. She chaired the "nickel-and-dime" fund-raising committee. An empty fish tank in the current library netted $600 in coins, most of it from children. Roper also organized events to earn money for beautifying the building grounds.

The Ropers' contribution was indicative of the groundswell of grass-roots support for the new library. Library director Gene Nelson said the city couldn't have made it to this point without families.

Plans call for the Education Building to remain the block's centerpiece. It would be remodeled for a children's library and meeting rooms. The main book collection would be housed in a partially underground structure connected to the historic building by a glass walkway. Most of the parking also would be below ground.

Total estimated construction cost is $17.5 million. The remainder of the $22.2 million is earmarked to furnish and equip the library.

"There is much yet to be done," said Doug Smoot, Academy Foundation director. "There are still financial challenges to complete the project within budget."

The foundation, which raised $5.4 million for the renovation, will know what those difficulties might be after construction bids come in this summer. Should bids exceed anticipated costs, the foundation has 75 days to negotiate a lower price or raise the difference in cash.

Although construction crews have scoured the building inside and out, above ground and below, there's always the possibility they missed something that could drive up remodeling costs.

"On a building this age (107 years), that's the big question," Smoot said. "We're very optimistic, but we're also very realistic."

Still, longtime Brigham Young Academy devotees are thrilled the building is still standing and they have a good chance to return it to its glory days.

"I spent all of my life on this block from kindergarten to first grade all the way up to a master's degree," said Shirley Paxman, who grew up across the street from the academy. "This is an important day to me."

If everything goes according to plan, the new library will open in fall 2000.