Article by James T. Mulder
WCNY will start construction in the next few weeks on a $20 million project to transform an empty warehouse on the edge of downtown Syracuse into its new home that will include a learning center, a concert auditorium, a cafe and other amenities.
The public broadcasting station closed Tuesday on its purchase of part of the former Case Supply warehouse at West and Marcellus streets on the near West Side. It expects to move there from its headquarters at 506 Old Liverpool Road, Salina, in October 2012.
The Post-Standard “It’s not just about us moving into new digs,” said Robert J. Daino, president and CEO of WCNY. “We are looking at this as a venue and a destination.”
The project will blend new construction and renovation, giving WCNY 56,000 square feet of space. A new building will be put up to house WCNY’s television studios and control rooms. Warehouse space will be transformed into radio studios, a café, education center, a small concert auditorium and office space. WCNY serves 1.8 million viewers and listeners in its 19-county broadcasting area.
In a pioneering move in the public broadcasting industry, the center will feed programs to the state’s eight other PBS stations and have the capability to serve PBS stations throughout the Northeast. WCNY, which employs 80 people, expects to add 18 new jobs as part of the expansion.
WCNY is considered an anchor of revitalization efforts on the near West Side. The move to turn around the run down neighborhood was sparked by the Near Westside Initiative, a nonprofit started with seed money from Syracuse University. The Near Westside Initiative bought the Case Supply building five years ago. ProLiteracy Worldwide, a nonprofit international organization that promotes adult literacy, also is moving into the building. There are also plans to develop apartments in the warehouse.
“This is a game changer,” Marilyn Higgins, president of the Near Westside Initiative and an SU vice president, said of WCNY’s move. “We are going to have the public broadcasting station of the future in what was once one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.”
Both the neighborhood and WCNY are reinventing themselves.
WCNY has been working to become more financially independent. It became the first PBS station in the country four years ago to scrap on-air pledge drives. It has reduced the portion of its budget that comes from state and federal funding from 57 percent to 29 percent, according to Daino, who says his goal is to totally eliminate the station’s reliance on government funding.
Some members of Congress want to eliminate funding for public broadcasting. “That inspires me to work harder to figure out ways to make ourselves as self-sufficient as possible,” Daino said.
The station has been coming up with new ways to generate revenue.
For example, it produces a 90-second television report by reporter Susan Arbetter, who covers the capitol in Albany, that it sells to 10 commercial TV stations around the state.
Peter Chen/The Post-Standard Bruce Paulsen and Bill Baker, both announcers with WCNY-FM, chat as Paulsen takes over the on air duties from Baker in the station’s Liverpool studio.
Daino convinced the state’s eight other PBS stations to consolidate some of the technical, behind-the-scenes aspects of their operations into its new Syracuse facility to save money and generate additional revenue for WCNY. The facility will serve as a joint master control center for all the state’s PBS stations. While the stations will still create their own local programs, they will rely on WCNY to download, prepare and store national programs like “Antique Road Show.” Each station does that on its own now, a process that requires expensive equipment and computer software. WCNY also will also have staff monitoring all the stations’ programs when they air, eliminating the need for each station to do this on its own. Over 10 years the arrangement is expected to save the New York stations $20 million, according to Daino. He said WCNY is talking to PBS stations in other states and may eventually become a regional hub for stations along the East Coast. Daino said WCNY’s approach to consolidation and cost savings may be replicated by other PBS stations nationwide.
The facility’s learning center will offer education programs for students of all ages. It will feature a program that will allow middle and high school students to become employers, employees and consumers in a mock city designed to give them hands-on business experience. The center will be available to about 3,000 schools within a two-hour driving distance from Syracuse.
Higgins said she pitched the idea of relocating to the near West Side to Daino four years ago and he quickly jumped at the chance. The original plan called for the construction of a new building for WCNY, but a state grant that would have made that possible fell through. Higgins said state officials believed the project would have a better chance of getting state money if it included restoration of an old building. With the help of King & King Architects, WCNY went back to the drawing board and revised its plan to include a portion of the warehouse. The state subsequently approved a $5 million grant for the project.
WCNY has raised about $16 million for the project. That includes grants from the government, SU, and foundations and individual pledges. It also includes nearly $6.2 million raised through the New Market Tax Credit program. That program provides tax credits to investors who invest in revitalization projects in low-income communities.
WCNY will kick off a capital campaign to raise the remaining $4.1 million.
“We couldn’t have had a better partner in making something this difficult happen in this economy than WCNY,” Higgins said.
Higgins said neighborhood residents, the Near Westside Initiative’s board of directors and SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor played key roles in the project. Every time the project got bogged down, Cantor helped get it back on track, according to Higgins. “She called JPMorgan Chase and asked them to work with us on financing the project,” she said.
Daino said he wants neighbors as well as people who live farther away to use the new facility.
“WCNY is a community asset, the community owns it and we want the community to use it,” he said. “We belong on a street corner.”