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Public TV station WTVS can't find home in Detroit


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TOM WALSH: Public TV station WTVS can't find home in Detroit, looks at moving to Oakland Co.

March 9, 2004



Public TV station WTVS-TV (Channel 56) is so frustrated by its fruitless seven-year effort to find a suitable site for a new headquarters in Detroit that it may soon pull up stakes and relocate to Oakland County.

Steve Antoniotti, president and general manager of nonprofit WTVS, says he would prefer to build a high-visibility, digital facility on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

"But we've looked at every lot from the Fox Theatre up to Grand Boulevard, and all the owners seem to be waiting for a bigger or better deal," Antoniotti says. "It's become a huge frustration."

The WTVS board of trustees recently authorized Antoniotti to extend the search beyond Detroit's city limits and he has already looked at some sites in Oakland County.

WTVS and its 90 employees are currently tucked away in two buildings on Second Avenue, just north of the Fisher Building in the New Center area. If WTVS moves to the suburbs, that would leave WDIV-TV (Channel 4) as the only TV station left in Detroit. WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), WJBK-TV (Channel 2) and WWJ-TV (Channel 62) are all based in Southfield.

How can it be, in the heart of America's most abandoned major city, that we can't find a nice modest home along the main drag for a public treasure like WTVS?

This isn't the first time the vexing issue of land acquisition in Detroit has arisen to derail or delay development plans. It's happened with casinos, and it's happening with stalled talks over one cement plant on the Detroit riverfront. On every Detroit street corner, it seems, some genius who bought a distressed property a decade or two ago is hanging on to make a killing when Detroit's long-awaited comeback takes off.

"There are some people out there with pretty inflated ideas of what their property is worth," says Arnold Mikon, principal partner in architectural firm Yamasaki Associates. Mikon has been working without a fee to assist WTVS in its search.

WTVS, which began broadcasting in 1955 and now reaches about 3 million households in metro Detroit and Canada, has been in its current New Center home since the early 1970s. But its facility is now cramped and technologically behind the times. In the late 1990s, the federal government ordered all public TV stations to convert to digital broadcasting, which will cost WTVS about $10 million. Rather than try to revamp its old plant, the station set out to build a new headquarters.

Several times, a deal seemed at hand.

At one point, WTVS talked with the Detroit Lions about taking 75,000 square feet of renovated space in the old Hudson's warehouse that was incorporated into Ford Field.

But the TV station didn't have millions of dollars on hand to seal the deal. WTVS needed an attractive plan that would attract contributions from the foundations and private donors that support the station. Raising that kind of money takes time, and so the deal fell through.

In 2002, it looked like WTVS would build a new headquarters across Woodward from Orchestra Hall, as part of a project called the Woodward Promenade. But that deal unraveled, too.

WTVS trustees preferred not to borrow the large sums needed to fit the timetable of private developers. So Antoniotti says the station took a new approach. It began looking for a piece of land to buy on its schedule.

"We're looking for more visibility," Antoniotti says, noting that public donations are the station's lifeblood. "We want to create some public spaces, where we can bring groups into our building, for receptions or meetings or teleconferencing." He envisions a 70,000-square-foot building, perhaps three stories high.

A site near the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Woodward would be ideal. WTVS has a 10-year contract to manage a new TV production center being built by Detroit Public Schools inside the new performing arts high school, scheduled to open behind the Max next year.

Last November, WTVS made an offer on a lot farther north along Woodward, near New Center, Antoniotti says, and met the owner's asking price. But the owner has other conditions, and hasn't yet given the station a yes or no answer.

With an unfunded $10-million federal mandate to digitize in the next few years hanging over its head, and the looming need to launch a capital campaign for $30 million or so to fund a new building, WTVS needs to make a decision soon.

"We need to know as soon as possible where our home is going to be, certainly by this summer," Antoniotti says.

Oakland County will no doubt welcome the station with open arms if Detroit can't find a patch of turf for public TV.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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