Amherst Media Struggles To Find Temporary Home

Architect's rendering of proposed new Amherst Media building at Main Street and Gray. South Elevation. (Prior to final required changes). Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and conclude in 2024. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, April 25,2022

This is the first of two reports on the April 25l meeting of the Amherst Town Council. The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. Read Part 2 here.

Present
All councilors were present.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

President of the Amherst Media Board of Directors Artie McCollum came before the council to ask for assistance in finding a temporary headquarters for Amherst Media (AM). He also requested suggestions for improving communication between AM and the town. McCollum said that AM has received an extension of its current lease with Eversource at their College Street building until June 30,2022, but a two-year search has failed to find a suitable temporary site for AM to carry out its operations until its new building on Main Street is completed, probably in 2024.

Questions that McCollum and AM posed to the town regarding mutual obligations and questions from the Town Council to AM and responses can be found in a pair of memos (see preceding links). McCollum told the council that AM has raised two-thirds of the funds needed for their new building though grants and donations. Fundraising is continuing for the remaining building costs. AM has paid off the mortgage and continues to pay taxes to the town on the Main Street lot. Groundbreaking for the new building is expected to occur in 2023.

McCollum noted that all of the AM equipment is owned by the town, but the operations are funded by Comcast user fees, not by the town. However, in order to meet its obligations to the town to provide recordings of the meetings of the Town Council, Planning Board, School Committee, and Finance Committee, as well as educational programming, AM needs to be connected to the town’s i-net, so being located at a town building would be ideal. He emphasized that AM serves the whole population of Amherst, from young to old. He called attention to a production program for high school students under the direction of Alexis Reed. To continue its operations, AM needs about 2000 square feet of space.

Another concern of AM is lack of communication with the town. McCollum said that there used to be a liaison from the Select Board to Amherst Media, but this ended with the new form of government in 2018. Also, the Cable Advisory Committee was disbanded in 2018. The last contract with the town was signed in 2016 and is in effect until 2026. All contracts have been signed by the Town Manager.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman reviewed possible temporary locations for AM in town. Although the Bangs Center is centrally located, there is no available space, since the CRESS program is occupying the upper floor, and the Civil War tablets are in the pole room. Both the Senior Center and Health Department have asked for more space in that building. The North Amherst School has storage on the lower level and two children’s programs run by Community Action of the Pioneer Valley on the main floor.

Other town-owned sites are the former Hitchcock Center at Larch Hill, the club house at Hickory Ridge, and the South Amherst school. Bockelman said that both the former Hitchcock Center and the Hickory Ridge structures are in very poor condition. The former frequently floods and, because it is on conservation land, and can only be used for conservation or conservation education. According to the building commissioner, the Hickory Ridge Club House is also not suitable for occupancy.

Bockelman suggested that Amherst Media look into vacant private spaces in town. He said the town would pay for the i-net connection at the temporary headquarters.

The South Amherst School on South East Street was home to the alternative high school Summit Academy until the latter moved to the high school in the fall of 2018. In fact, AM was hoping to find temporary headquarters in the high school, but the area they could have occupied is now home to Summit Academy. According to Bockelman, the South East Street building has no operable heating system and, as of two years ago, needed about $40,000 in repairs. The building belonged to the School Committee until it was turned over to the town a couple of years ago.

Bockelman suggested that AM look into vacant private spaces in town. He said the town would pay for the i-net connection at the temporary headquarters. As far as improving communication with Amherst Media, he said that Communications Manager Brianna Sunryd had expressed an interest in being a contact person between the town and AM. Bockelman said he would continue to explore better avenues of communication. The Cable Advisory Committee was established to negotiate the 2016 contract and was disbanded after the contract was signed. A new committee will be appointed in October, 2023 to negotiate the 2026 contract.

Councilor Comments
Pat DeAngelis (District 2) was concerned that the town does not maintain its buildings, and that the three aforementioned possible locations were not suitable for occupancy. Several councilors thought that 2000 sq. ft. should be able to be found in town. Pam Rooney (District 4) wondered about the Middle School, which is not slated to have the sixth graders move there until 2023, or the former WMUA studio at UMass.

McCollum said he had reached out to UMass and the colleges, without success. Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3) couldn’t believe that there wasn’t 2000 sq. ft. available at one of the colleges or university. Michele Miller (District 1) wondered if AM could share space with the Arts Coalition which is also looking for performance space.

Andy Steinberg (at large) noted the changing needs of the town with the pandemic; that the town is now recording all its own meetings on Zoom, and is not as dependent on Amherst Media. Also, with fewer people subscribing to cable tv, revenues paid to AM from Comcast may decrease. He did emphasize that AM has fulfilled its contract with the town to the fullest and has provided excellent service.

Mandy Jo Hanneke (at large) said she was uncomfortable with this whole discussion, because the Town Council is a legislative body that has no authority over contracts made by the town with organizations. She asked, “If we help one nonprofit, then do we have to help all of them?”

Mandy Jo Hanneke (at large) said she was uncomfortable with this whole discussion, because the Town Council is a legislative body that has no authority over contracts made by the town with organizations. She asked, “If we help one nonprofit, then do we have to help all of them?” She added that, prior to the 2018 Town Charter, the Select Board was part of the executive branch with Town Meeting serving as the legislative branch, but now the town manager is the executive.

Other councilors disagreed with Hanneke’s point of view. Ellisha Walker (at large) noted that AM is different from other nonprofits, since it provides services to the council. She said that if AM can’t find space, it would negatively affect the council’s transparency. Taub and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) agreed that the council has a responsibility to the residents of Amherst to assure that public access to government continues.

In regard to a town liaison, Steinberg said that there was some discomfort on the Select Board in having a board member of a nonprofit appointed by the town. But Council President Lynn Griessmer (District 2) said that there are ways to deal with this discomfort. The town representative can recuse themselves from discussions of any business with the town as she did when she was on the board of the Amherst Survival Center. Bahl-Milne added that there should have been a town representative supporting AM all along.

Bockelman agreed to continue to help AM locate temporary quarters in town. He will get a more specific figure for what it would take to make the South Amherst school available and will facilitate contact with the institutions of higher education. He will also work on improving communication between AM and the town with a consistent liaison.

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3 thoughts on “Amherst Media Struggles To Find Temporary Home

  1. As Paul Bockelman detailed the various Town-owned properties that either are fully occupied or are vacant and have fallen into disrepair, and I consider the growing list of organizations that are looking for space, I couldn’t help but think that there will be an 82,000 square foot building with ample parking available when the new school is complete (summer 2026). Admittedly, this will be too late for Amherst Media, but it may be helpful for other groups.

    82,000 sf is large enough to accommodate many different organizations, including perhaps Senior Center programming, BIPOC Youth Center, Multicultural Center, Early Childhood Center/Expanded Preschool, ESL Instruction, Amherst Recreation offices, and now this new request from the “Performing Arts and Education Collaborative.”

    The types of spaces and how much space each group would need can be inventoried, and an evaluation undertaken on whether the groups’ needs could be met in the vacated elementary school.

    Now is the time to start thinking and talking about this, before the Elementary School Building Committee selects the site for the new school. It could/should be one more factor to consider in that decision.

  2. The Town’s Land Bank – Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust sought the same information: what are the town buildings available in Amherst? What are the open land spaces? The thought was to go onto ‘those nearing availability’ so as to do planning, get ahead of some of the absentee landlords, multi-nationals and others. One third of Amherst land is in easements (forever forest, forever ag, forever parks’n rec) and future decisions will be severely diminished as it continues. Let’s at least get a handle on the literal ‘lay of the land’ (and buildings) now – before those options for our decisions are Zero in number.

    Chad Fuller

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