Buell Public Media Center, the new headquarters of Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO Jazz 89.3-FM and The Drop, is finally complete after a four-year, $34 million fundraising and construction process that saw numerous revisions to its ambitious, community-hub concept.
“It’s a little bittersweet not being in the building,” said Amanda Mountain, CEO and president of Rocky Mountain Public Media (RMPM). “A month ago we were feeling comfortable giving tours in very small, socially distanced groups with everyone wearing masks. This month and for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t apply.”
As a result, RMPM has been giving virtual tours to its investors and is planning a grand opening celebration for sometime in 2021. The only people in the 93,000-square-foot building right now are essential staff, she said, although others will continue moving in through November.
Designed by Tryba Architects and located at 2101 Arapahoe St., the Buell Public Media Center will also host the Metzler Family Learning Center, the Community Media Center, Masterpiece Studio, Bonfils-Stanton Performance Studio and Colorado Media Collaborative (COLab).
It’s a big project, but it started out even bigger.
The Buell Public Media Center began with a pricetag of $49.17 million and a full-city-block concept that included a school, community garden and potential housing along with media production facilities. That was later revised down to $38.8 million to reflect cuts in office space from 80,000 to about 60,000 square feet. RMPM officials also shaved up to $9 million off costs by replacing a proposed 500-seat proscenium theater with a “flexible space theater.”
RMPM officials experienced a setback in June 2017 when the Colorado Economic Development Commission denied them a tax credit worth about $1.5 million, given that the project is just outside the boundary of an enterprise zone that takes in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Groundbreaking was also pushed back at least twice as officials continued fundraising.
“Really, nothing short of reconceptualizing the project has occurred,” Mountain told The Denver Post in 2018, after her organization’s second major capital campaign for the building.
Finally, however, RMPM contractors broke ground in November 2018. The namesake donor, Buell Foundation, joined major gifts from Robert F. Metzler & Rosemary M. Metzler, Daniel & Janet Mordecai, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Gill Foundation, Koelbel Family Foundation, Sturm Family Foundation, Patricia L. Pacey & Charles M. Neinas, Doug Morton & Marilyn Brown, and Douglas & Hazel Stevens Price.
It’s a celebratory moment for the organization, but a strange one, Mountain told The Denver Post on Tuesday, considering the pandemic. The building is a critical piece of RMPM’s high-tech goal of “creating a Colorado where everyone is seen and heard,” she said. The coronavirus pandemic obviously presents challenges to that.
RMPM bills itself as Colorado’s largest statewide, member-supported multimedia organization with more than 90,000 members and stations in Denver, the Pueblo/Colorado Springs market, Steamboat Springs, Grand Junction and Durango.
While the building’s opening comes at a difficult time for all news and entertainment media, it also arrives amid the decline of legacy outlets such as newspapers and network-TV affiliates, which have laid off employees and cut coverage due to diminished ad revenues and other factors.
Member-supported media, in some cases, has been booming. Those cases include Colorado Public Radio, which has been hiring new employees and devouring new radio markets in recent months as part of its years-long attempt to dominate state news coverage.
Several smaller media organizations are slated to share the third floor of the Buell’s COLab, a “new-era newsroom designed to support nearly 100 local journalists,” including The Associated Press, Chalkbeat Colorado, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, The Colorado Sun, The Colorado Independent, Colorado Media Project, Colorado Press Association, KGNU and Open Media Foundation.
How necessary those offices are remains to be seen, given this new era of working from home, which may stick around long after the pandemic passes.
“I can’t speak on behalf of other organizations, but all of our partners have made a commitment to be a part of COLab,” Mountain said. “Not just because there’s strength in collaboration, but because being physically together creates relationships and energy many organizations are missing in this fractured media environment.”
There’s also the 5,000-square-foot Community Media Center, a classroom and production workspace for students supported by Emily Griffith Technical College and the city and county of Denver. A proposed charter school for grades 6-8 — in partnership with the Denver Public Schools — was cut from the initial plans and re-envisioned as an area devoted to PBS Kids programming, thanks to a $1.5 million gift from the Metzler Family.
The success of the project, and many member-supported organizations in general, can be attributed not only to development and fundraising prowess, but also to the products backing it up, said Corey Hutchins, who teaches journalism at Colorado College and writes a regular column on statewide media happenings.
While some local outlets have struggled to present a balance of local and national news in the digital age, public radio and TV, in particular, is already set up to offer both in a seamless format, Hutchins said.
“We’re becoming a direct service organization to meet the needs of our community, and that is a lot different from traditional media,” said Mountain, who touted the building’s inclusive technology that will (eventually) allow members of the public to learn to produce their own stories.
She cited “a trust in public media” that commercial media doesn’t always enjoy.
“We have more than 92,000 members giving an average of $130 per year,” she said. “And I believe they’re doing so because they feel it’s a demonstration of their values. So we’ve been able to invest in those values. That’s not to say we’re not experiencing any financial trouble. It’s always an uphill climb. But we are grateful.”
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