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Amherst Media’s chief seeks backing for move, expansion

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

    SARAH GANZHORN
    Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Jim Lescault stands outside the building that has housed Amherst Media, of which he is executive director, since 1991. The organization is trying to raise funds to construct a new building on Main Street in Amherst.
  • SARAH GANZHORN<br/>Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault sits in a studio in the organization's current building, which it has occupied since 1991. Funds are being raised to support the construction of a new building on Main Street in Amherst.

James Lescault, executive director of Amherst Media, likes to say that when he started his job here six years ago, he had blond hair and more of it.

It’s not true, his hair was white then too. But the point is, it’s been a wild ride and he’s heading into what promises to be his busiest year yet.

The media center, which has grown from a public access TV studio to include Apple-certified training, use by 17 Valley communities, a large internship program and partnerships with area colleges, is about to launch a campaign to raise $1 million, buy land and construct a building by December 2014. That’s the drop-dead date set by its landlord, the Western Massachusetts Electric Co., for Amherst Media to get out.

It doesn’t sound possible, but Lescault shrugs when I say that. “Oh, it will happen,” he said during an interview at the studios on College Street. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it will happen.”

Yet time is ticking and he is still wrangling with banks to get a loan before fundraising starts. He says the whole project, with a 9,000-square-foot building, will cost $2.5 million.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle — convincing Town Meeting to approve a zoning change for the Main Street land — is behind him. Those familiar with the contentious nature of Amherst politics knows that’s no simple feat. There were complaints during the debate last spring that Amherst Media would not end up buying the land comprising the sweeping lawn in front of the Hill mansion and the Amherst Women’s Club and the change would just benefit landowner Jerry Guidera. And some objected to putting a building where it would block the view of the stately residences.

Lescault bristles at the memory. “We’re not going to build a big-box building,” he said. “We will fit into the community and really help define that area.”

He quickly points out that the town manager, Select Board, Planning Board and Zoning Board all supported the zoning change.

“But I heard Town Meeting,” said Lescault, who stood before the legislative body to make the presentation. “I heard the doubt in that room.” And so, despite the fact that Guidera has offered to construct the building for Amherst Media and rent it to the nonprofit if financing doesn’t work out, Lescault is determined to follow a different route.

“I am going to prove by buying that land that we are indeed going to be there. Even my dentist has been saying, ‘Hey, Jim, I voted for you, What’s up?’ ”

Hurry up and wait

It’s been over four months. And what’s up at the moment is a waiting game. After a frustrating summer of chasing key people between their vacations, Lescault said, banks are now taking their time, watching rates that are said to be on the verge of rising. They don’t want to lock into a rate that won’t benefit them, he said

“We are still talking with a couple of different banks about terms,” he said.

The same goes for getting the capital campaign underway. Knowing Amherst Media needs help, its board has been meeting with professionals who can provide it and are awaiting a proposal.

e_SDLqThis is kind of a critical time,” Lescault said.

Guidera has been patient, not pushing a deadline for the land sale. “He’s been very gracious.”

Amherst Media, which started off as Amherst Community Television, has been in the eye-catching ivy-covered brick building on College Street since 1991 and Lescault likes it just fine, but the utility wants it back. Its got plenty of room for editing suites and training workshops. It has a large studio, a spacious sunny conference room and 2-foot-thick brick walls that keep the noise out.

“In this studio I have never heard a car from Route 9, never heard a plane,” he said as he showed me around. “We’ve had 30 kids (playing interactive video games) in the room next to this when we’ve had a live shoot going and not heard a sound.”

He’d be happy to stay. “Remember, I am not moving for the sake of moving, I’m being evicted.”

He’s had four years since the utility gave Amherst Media the word and he’s checked out 25 locations, finally concluding that building a new structure is the best route. One problem with finding a suitable building is its distance from the major cable transfer point Amherst Media needs to hook up to. “We’re not like a house,” he said. And, at a cost of $100 a foot for cable line, with the connection, in some cases, as far as a quarter of a mile away, properties fell by the wayside. “We figured dollar for dollar, we’d probably do better with new construction.”

Planning an appeal

And so he is honing his fundraising message. The Amherst Survival Center ran a successful campaign in which it raised $2.5 million to erect a shiny new building on Sunderland Road. Lescault has been meeting with former director Cheryl Zoll to find out how she pulled it off.

The Survival Center had a compelling appeal, given that it provides food, clothing, medical care and counseling to the needy.

Lescault acknowledges his is less emotional. But he does think the public values the service the nonprofit provides and he hopes that will result in donations.

Beside providing the public access to its equipment and studios, Amherst Media, with a four-person staff and $300,000 budget, broadcasts all of the meetings of key town boards and posts them online. It also videotapes community events, such as the Rotary Club’s annual auction, which is coming up in mid-November. It carries a wide range of national and international programs. Most popular, he said, are Classical Arts, operas and orchestral concerts from around the world that air on weekends, and Democracy Now, which runs weekdays.

Lescault notes that professors from local colleges produce shows. Two current ones are Mount Holyoke College president Lynn Pasquerella’s “Difficult Dialogues,” a series which has faculty members addressing tough issues such as racism and the Syrian crisis, and University of Massachusetts professor Jarice Hanson’s “Technology Matters,” a series of speakers discussing innovative ideas for the economy and the future of work in western Massachusetts.

“I think that a community that cares about transparency in government, a community that really believes in communication not only locally but regionally and internationally, does not want to lose that opportunity,” said Lescault.

And with 15 to 25 college interns, along with partnerships for projects with area schools, “I would say that we are probably the most active town and gown functioning agency in the town,” he said. Amherst Media just contracted with Amherst College to tape its coming TEDx ideas-sharing event.

That’s part of the message he is going to deliver.

The other part is Amherst Media’s role in bringing people from outside of the area into town through its training sessions and other partnerships, giving them tools to compete in a technology-based economy.

It’s difficult, he said, to keep the young people who pass through the colleges and the university here in town. “You find people moving to the big city — New York, the Bay Area — places where things are really happening. Amherst needs to expand somewhat. I’m not saying it has to become a large city, but it has to provide more opportunities for people to give back and create. We as a community, economically, would thrive from that.”

He noted that as a nonprofit, Amherst Media will not be contributing tax dollars to the town with its new building. “But we bring people and energy in that benefit the community and we highlight what this community is by videotaping it and putting it online and holding teleconferencing and telecommunications and lectures and public policy issues. I think that helps. I really do.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

Related

Nina M. Scott: Amherst Media plays important role in community

Friday, October 11, 2013

To the editor: Kudos to Debra Scherban for her fine coverage of the location dilemma facing Amherst Media, to which I had paid little attention, mostly because I had been to its media center only once for a technical instruction. As of this fall, however, I am there on a weekly basis for a Five College Learning in Retirement seminar … 0

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