NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Down In Front!

You bought your ticket, and you’re enjoying the show … when the big guy in front of you stands up. You can’t see around him. He’s taller than you. Larger. Louder. He’s got a lot of muscle, and his brawny friends are cheering him on. When you tell him — politely — that he’s in your way, all he does is shrug: “Tough. This is my spot, and I feel like standing.”

What do you do next?

If you’re Prairie Public Broadcasting, and the fellow blocking your view is Gov. Doug Burgum’s Kilbourne Group, that’s a pretty good question.

The issue is something called air rights, a concept that rarely comes up here on our horizontal landscape. In the land where most “skyscrapers” top out at a half-dozen floors, we tend to spare scant thought for what’s overhead except when it rains during harvest.

But the next addition to Fargo’s skyline is creating a splitting headache for one of its venerable downtown neighbors, and it all comes down to who owns rights to use the air of downtown Fargo. When the Kilbourne Group’s wildly pricey and much-ballyhooed 18-story high-rise starts to loom over the east side of Broadway, it’s going to cause inadvertent pain far greater than sore necks among the flatlanders craning to admire its apex.

Gov. Burgum’s impending prairie edifice is aptly named — Block 9. It will, in fact, block Prairie Public Broadcasting’s signal. The statewide public television and radio network is housed in the American Life Building on Fifth Street North, due east of the 18-story skyscraper to be erected on the 200 block of Broadway. It shoots its microwave stream 30 miles west to its main transmitter near Wheatland, N.D. … and from there to satellite stations that cover 98 percent of North Dakota plus surrounding states and provinces.

Building a 220-foot structure right smack across the street obstructs that path through the ozone. And apparently, according to a statement from Block 9’s builders, that’s just too bad. Since Prairie Public doesn’t own the airspace over that block of Broadway, that makes it solely the public broadcaster’s problem.

Valley News Live, which broke the story last week, reached out to the Kilbourne Group for comment. This was what they heard back: “The partners involved in the Block 9 project and Prairie Public Broadcasting have met multiple times to discuss the television and radio signal tower that uses air rights that Prairie Public does not own. … We are hopeful that Prairie Public Broadcasting will find a solution that works for their organization.”

Owners are generally considered to own the rights to the space above their own buildings. Beyond that, however, they have no influence over who can put what around them. Thus, the fact that public television and radio waves have been blasted from that rooftop for 33 years — and by WDAY TV and Radio for decades before PPTV took it over — carries no special weight when a partnership of two of the region’s top-dollar developers erects its showplace right up in your face.

The big guy sitting in front of you bought his ticket fair and square. If you can’t see around him when he stands up — too bad for you.

In case you haven’t been following the stirring drama of downtown redevelopment, let’s introduce the players. First on the list: the Kilbourne Group, headed by entrepreneur Burgum. Since its first public-spirited foray — redeveloping an aging commercial building to accommodate North Dakota State University’s art and architecture departments — it has gradually acquired the lion’s share of property in downtown Fargo. It’s widely and properly credited for reviving the aging, deteriorating district, bringing vibrant, stylish life to the city center. Today, the Kilbourne Group owns 18 structures between University Drive and the river.

Playing supporting roles in the drama are RDO Equipment, TMI Hospitality and the city of Fargo itself. The $98 million high-rise — Kilbourne’s most ambitious production by far — will house 26,000 feet of retail on the ground; 99,000 square feet of offices; a 350-car parking ramp; an 88-room “European-style boutique hotel,” complete with a ballroom sized for 400 guests plus an outdoor garden for rooftop soirees; and, finally, five stories of million-dollar condominiums, like a luxe layer of glossy frosting on the ultimate prestigious cake.

Back on the ground, the broadcaster is trying to figure out how to literally get around Block 9. Three options are being explored.

One is to relocate its 100-foot monopole and microwave equipment to a site farther from the towering obstruction. Prairie Public engineers will meet with city representatives next week to talk over the most feasible location, the spot the Fargo Police Department now occupies. That possibility involves purchasing or leasing the property (or graciously accepting it as a gift from the city), along with pouring a foundation and all the structural work, plus moving and reinstalling equipment. Estimated cost: $100,000.

Option B is securing rooftop rights to mount the equipment on a taller building. The logical choice, Block 9 itself, is out of the running because of those snazzy condos on its top floors. Talks with owners of other likely candidates are, shall we say, up in the air. The city’s height regulations also come into play. Cost: to be determined.

Plan C? Ferry the broadcast signal to Wheatland via Midco’s fiber optic connectivity. The cost? That’s difficult to say, partly because Midco’s fiber now ends far short of the transmitter location. A current best guess is that upfront construction costs plus ongoing line leases could reach half a million dollars over the next 10 years.

Weigh these against the one option that’ll never fly — not building Block 9 at all. Net cost: zero.

So Prairie Public Broadcasting has run into the perfect storm … and at the worst possible moment. The Republican gang in Washington, D.C., hopes to scratch out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in its upcoming budget. The North Dakota Legislature seems poised to cut its biennial appropriation for the statewide network to less than half of what it is today. They’re even tinkering with charitable gaming, another source of PPB’s support.

PPB reaches 100,000 TV viewers and 20,000 radio listeners weekly, covering 98 percent of North Dakota plus the surrounding area. The radio audience could diminish, though, due to an unrelated tempest. Prairie Public partners with the University of North Dakota in two Grand Forks public radio stations, KUND and KFJM. UND needs to disengage from the radio business. That means Prairie Public must buy out its share of the broadcast licenses — at a cost well into six figures.

Membership — the largest element of Prairie Public’s support, contributing about 30 percent to its $8 million budget — is holding steady at about 15,000 individuals and 200 corporate sponsors. Their average gifts are growing, up 20 percent over the past decade. But they’re not nearly enough to compensate for cuts and unanticipated costs in other quarters.

These are not serene times for the nonprofit enterprise that brings a dizzying spectrum of broadcast benefits to the North Country — from priceless educational programming that enriches learning in schools and homes all over the region to programs exploring science, history, public affairs and quirky niches like the BBC’s comedies and dramas to cooking shows on Saturday morning.

Compared with the gargantuan numbers swirling around the Block 9 project, Prairie Public’s problematic digits seem rather puny. The dollars needed to cure its transmitter woes amount to barely a blip, considered on the far loftier scale of the Block 9 project … yet the cost represents a devastating body blow to the scrappy public corporation at a time when it’s coincidentally beset by threats from so many directions.

The skyscraper issue, though utterly without malice, is a disaster nevertheless.

So far, the wildly well-heeled Kilbourne Group has offered no help at all to rectify the damage they’ve unwittingly created. Let’s hope the big guy standing up in front sits down to help solve the problem.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Down In Front!”

  • Katherine Tweed April 5, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you for reporting this. I had not heard about it before. I wonder if it will make a difference in “benevolence.”


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