A base for broadcasting and bettering community

If you bought a new television for February’s switch from analog to digital TV, you’ve got nothing on Vegas PBS.

The local public television affiliate, also known as KLVX-TV, Channel 10, will get a whole new headquarters for the changeover. And like today’s high-definition flat screens, it’ll have all the latest bells and whistles.

The Vegas PBS building started out during initial planning in 1999 as a straightforward base for digital television transmission. By its July groundbreaking, though, it had transformed into a distance education high school, an emergency response hub and a work force development center, all inside the first TV headquarters in the United States built to both Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards and post-Sept. 11, 2001, security guidelines.

“Almost all of our colleagues (at other stations) are doing pieces of this, but no one has taken it to the Las Vegas level,” said Tom Axtell, general manager of Vegas PBS. “We think this building will be copied around the country because of the way we’ve integrated these concepts.”

Here’s how the station, a project of local firm JMA Architecture Studios, evolved.

When Vegas PBS officials decided to abandon the station’s analog, pre-personal computer offices on Channel 10 Drive, their virtual high school, which broadcasts classes to students around the Las Vegas Valley, had 200 enrollees. It’s since grown to 5,000 students. So the nonprofit’s leaders decided to consolidate the school’s 37 teachers in its new building. They threw in four studios and a science lab where teachers could produce lessons, and meeting rooms where kids could receive hands-on instruction.

And once station officials knew they’d be buying rather than leasing their building at Flamingo Road and McLeod Drive, operating costs became paramount. Enter Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program helps businesses craft ecofriendly buildings that go easy on power bills and other costs. Vegas PBS has applied for LEED gold status, the second-highest level the green building council grants. Helping the 100,800-square-foot station qualify are touches including overhead day lighting, recycled materials that emit few or no volatile organic compounds, underground cisterns for rainwater collection and 202 wells more than 400 feet below the ground to cool air conditioning water.

The LEED measures tacked on 7 percent to the $44 million building’s construction cost. Planners pegged a six-year payback based on 2006 energy prices.

But it took a catastrophic terrorist attack and a major corporate donation to crystallize Vegas PBS’ ultimate headquarters mission.

Vegas PBS officials watched with the rest of the world as New York’s World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, 2001. On top of taking thousands of lives, the towers’ destruction wiped out a significant chunk of telecommunications infrastructure, taking down broadcast antennae and disrupting communications networks. The disaster forced Vegas PBS execs to ask how they’d preserve their signal during a cataclysm, whether terrorism or flood or earthquake.

Their answer: features including perimeter walls to protect the building from explosions, generators for the station to run seven days on its own power and structural upgrades that exceed even California’s earthquake-survival standards. When it opens, the Vegas PBS headquarters will be the first TV station in the United States to meet recommendations of the Media Security and Reliability Council, a trade group assembled after the Sept. 11 attacks to secure the country’s communications infrastructure.

Vegas PBS’ stability in an emergency won’t necessarily mean a steady signal of “Sesame Street” and “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” But it does ensure the station’s ability to deploy its communications capabilities to help government agencies during emergencies. Say there’s a shooting near an elementary school. Vegas PBS could send, via a secure signal, blueprints of the building to a laptop inside a nearby police patrol car. It could beam students’ contact information to another car, complete with details on court orders showing which noncustodial parents can’t pick up kids after school. All the while, Vegas PBS could keep the programming the public sees up and running.

Even as station officials planned for disaster, their headquarters continued to morph.

Irene Vogel, chief executive officer of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors and a member of the board of directors of Southern Nevada Public Television, experienced an epiphany while reviewing plans for the Vegas PBS base.

Axtell mentioned to Vogel in 2005 that the station needed sponsors for its distance learning multimedia center. Vogel, whose trade group includes Realtors across Clark and Nye counties, recognized that her association could benefit from a television station that could produce, store and transmit via closed circuit some of the classes real estate brokers need for continuing education credits. And that’s why the association, with its $75,000 donation, became the first corporate contributor to the building’s capital campaign.

“Sometimes, people think only about what’s in it for them,” Vogel said. “But we have to look at how we can all work together. I saw how my members might get some betterment out of it, but what about the community, too? That sparked our donation. When someone like the GLVAR gives money, maybe other businesses could see the benefit of supporting this project.”

The number of businesses that could benefit from continuing education through Vegas PBS is virtually endless, Axtell said. As he’s led tours of the center, visitors in industries ranging from home security to health care have pointed to its educational possibilities. Thus emerged the concept of Vegas PBS as a vocational center that would provide lifelong learning in occupational areas the local economy demands. When the virtual high school isn’t in session, its studios can work an extra four to six hours a day on the professional training front.

The station plans to charge businesses and other groups to use the headquarters’ distance-learning component. Axtell said it’s too early to predict how much additional revenue continuing education could reap for Vegas PBS. Bond funds are financing the PBS studios and the virtual high school, while private donations and spectrum fees are funding the remainder of the project.

Vegas PBS officials expect the nonprofit to begin moving into its new base in February.

They’re already planning for the crush of visitors who’ll want to see the building. Representatives of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department toured the site recently, snapping up security ideas for the headquarters they want to build near the Spaghetti Bowl, and Axtell fields a constant stream of phone calls from leaders of other local businesses and government agencies angling to get a peek inside the unfinished building.

And when the National Association of Broadcasters convention hits town in April, it’ll bring in more than 100,000 members of the television and radio industry, at least some of whom will want to check out one of the country’s newest TV stations. Exhibitors at the 2004 trade show deployed Vegas PBS signals in 11 booths to show off their latest technologies; Axtell hopes for similar exposure in 2009, and he also expects some of the vendors who supply the station with its equipment will host cocktail parties on-site to show off their products in a high-tech environment.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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