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Music network makes deal with ACTV

Friday, July 16, 2004 by

AMN management must explain how it will keep station afloat until October 1

The Austin Music Network (AMN) has arranged with Austin Community Television (ACTV) to shift its programs, archives and logo to the community network on October 1, but whether AMN can stay on the air between now and then remains an open question.

Louis Meyers, the music network’s general manager, expects to receive an advance of $15,000 from the city today to pay his 12 employees for work they have already done. “We got a call that the check is going to be given to us (Friday), and we have 10 days to let them know how we are going to keep the station alive,” Meyers said Thursday. The money the city is disbursing today is AMN’s budgeted funding for the month of August. Under the contract between AMN and the city, City Manager Toby Futrell can require that Meyers demonstrate his ability to fulfill his end of the contract—keeping the station going—through September 30, the final day of AMN’s contract with the city. There was an indication as early as March that AMN was not bringing in enough revenue to continue operations through the end of the year. ( In Fact Daily, March 5, 2004.)

The board of directors of ACTV approved creating “suitable agreements” with AMN and the private group Austin Music Partners (AMP) “to collaborate with minimal cost to the City, and to establish a coordinated approach to serving the whole Austin music community,” said Ron Frank, president of the ACTV board.

The board’s action on Monday dovetails with its previous decision to restructure the three channels into three distinct programming areas: education and the arts (eaTV), inspirational programming (Inspirational TV) and broad-spectrum public access (FreeTV).

A press release from ACTV noted, “The education and arts channel offers a natural venue for AMN programming.” Meyers said AMN programming would appear on eaTV eight to 16 hours per day. “The goal is to increase the overall quality of access television, not only for the viewer, but for the producers as well.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, the network’s strongest supporter on the Council, said Thursday, “This sounds like a very positive and logical progression as we get closer to having a real solution to the needs of the music network . . . It sounds like we have the potential for the resolution we were looking for—a quadruple win,” for the city, AMN, ACTV and AMP.

Connie Wodlinger of Austin Music Partners said she has been working with both Meyers and ACTV to bring about this change. “We’ve agreed to fund a portion of what they’re trying to do with their arts and education channel,” she said. “We’re going to pay Meyers’ salary and some additional funding for program development. One of the things we want to do is encourage the filmmakers to collaborate with local musicians and create more professional quality footage.”

Wodlinger laughed when reminded of her earlier desire to start up a commercial music network by October 1. “Of course that’s not going to be possible,” she said, explaining that AMP is now exploring the idea of spending a year or two working with an existing production facility in Austin. The initial plan was to build a new studio, but the time required to do that—along with ordering and installing equipment—makes it unfeasible at the moment, she said.

ACTV currently operates three channels, which are provided to the city as part of the franchise agreement with Time-Warner Cable and Grande Communications. Assistant City Attorney Sonny Hood told In Fact Daily yesterday that AMN is running on what is called a PEG channel. PEG stands for public educational and government access, a designation created by the federal cable act. He said the City of Austin negotiated a deal with Time-Warner in 1996 that allows AMN to operate on a regular channel and sell advertising. PEG channels are prohibited from doing so. ACTV would like permission to convert one of its PEG channels into a hybrid—earmarked to become the new home of arts and education programming for Central Texas.

Hood noted that the hybrid concept is a new one in the cable arena, but that the city and Time-Warner are free to write whatever terms they choose into their agreement, as long as they do not violate any other portion of the law.

Planning Commission to reconsider historic code changes

Faced with two separate recommendations for changes to the city's historic preservation ordinance, the Planning Commission this week decided to send both proposals to its Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee for further review. The Codes and Ordinance Subcommittee had already heard a presentation from city staff and a new preservation group, Preserve Austin, but will meet again next Monday to study additional information presented by the Heritage Society and a task force assembled to review the criteria for historic zoning. The full Planning Commission will meet again on July 27 to make its recommendations to the Council in time for its July 29 meeting.

Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker led that task force, which made its report to the City Council this spring. She told Planning Commission members the process by which the proposed ordinance changes had wound up on their doorstep was flawed.

"The task force worked on this for six months. We did not hear a staff position or staff recommendation until we went to Council," she said. "This is almost being presented to you backwards, and for that I think you are due an apology. That offends me personally; it offends me as chair and as representative of the people who put in the hours. You heard a staff presentation tonight, but you did not have a Task Force presentation. We did not come prepared to make one because we did not know this was going to occur." Baker proceeded to outline the differences between the staff's recommendation for changes to the ordinance and those suggested by the task force. (See In Fact Daily, April 7th, 2004.) The primary differences between the two concern which properties could qualify for tax abatements and the amount of those abatements.

The staff proposal calls for any new guidelines for tax abatements to apply to properties already zoned historic, while the task force recommends grandfathering those properties and their tax breaks. Without those tax incentives, Baker said, Austin would be in jeopardy of losing some of its most valuable historic properties. "When you see downtown, 6th and Congress properties, that land value's not ever going down. That structure value may not appreciably increase, but that land value is going to always increase. And that's a tremendous difference between the staff recommendation and the task force," she said.

Although there is some concern about the financial impact of those tax breaks on the city budget, Baker said the city actually benefited financially from the presence of historic structures. "I don't think you have a better economic incentive for the City of Austin than historic preservation, because it's a direct relation to tourism. Tourism literally is paying our bills. If it weren't for tourism right now, this city would be in terrible shape," she said. Baker also heads up heritage marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance supported Baker’s position, as did the Austin Heritage Society. "By and large, we're pleased with the recommendations of the task force," said Betts, who was involved in the creation of the city's historic zoning program in the mid-1970s. "We took it upon ourselves to go to the owners of the most historic properties in our city and ask them to give up certain property rights that were valuable to them, primarily the right of demolition where the land values are high," he said. "The land owner gives up the right to demolish that property and put it to a higher and better use and to give himself an opportunity to make a better return on his investment. By asking him to give up that valuable right, we also ask for the commitment to maintain that historic property for the benefit of us all. For that commitment from that property owner we said the city will commit to give you certain tax abatements on your property."

Changing the rules of the program, said Betts, would fundamentally alter the pressures for development downtown. "Property owners have made their investments for years based on that tax abatement being part of the formula. We think it's just the right thing to do to honor those commitments made by the city and the property owners." Reducing the incentive to maintain historic structures, Betts said, would change downtown from a diverse mix of smaller, historic buildings and high-rise construction to a more homogenous zone with less character. "In many cases, the majority of the value of a site is in the land, and as those properties can be combined they can be put to a higher and better use. The economics can swing in favor of the demolition of historic properties, and that's not anything I think anybody wants to see."

The former president of the Austin Heritage Society, Dealey Herndon, also spoke up in favor of the task force's recommendations. "Our support of the task force was based on the fact that they had been asked by the city to do a review, and we though that on balance they came out at a good place," she said. Herndon also protested the inclusion of Preserve Austin at a Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee meeting at which the more established Heritage Society had not been present.

"Preserve Austin is a new organization in the city comprised of preservation professionals and other community leaders," responded Peter Ketter, a representative of the new group. "We're in support of the staff recommendations. Most of those are appropriate changes to the current ordinance. This re-evaluation of the program is much overdue." While Ketter said the group was backing the staff's suggestions on changing the tax abatements, he said it would not be a permanent solution. "We feel that an economic impact study is necessary to determine what is the effect of the tax incentives that are being given to historic properties and what is the return to the city," he said. "We support the staff recommendation for minimal reduction in those abatements as just an interim measure until a study can be performed."

Planning Commission members agreed it was time to change the program, which has not undergone any significant revisions since its inception in 1974, and sought to find common ground between the two camps. "What I'd like to see in the bigger perspective is a very strong ordinance that really protected historical structures, but was relatively hard to get implemented," said Commissioner Matthew Moore. He noted that while the Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee had originally supported the staff's recommendation, new information from the Task Force and other groups could influence their decision.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan called for more work by the subcommittee and the Planning Commission before sending recommendations to the Council. "I think that it's potentially embarrassing to the City Council to have different factions of the preservation community come in fighting over something instead of coming in with something on which they agree . . . and have it be more orderly," he said.

Sullivan's motion to send the matter back to the subcommittee passed unanimously, with Commission Chair Chris Riley off the dais. Riley declared a conflict of interest at the beginning of the meeting and recused himself from the discussion and the vote.

Moving on to rail . . . Mayor Will Wynn attended a high-level working lunch Thursday with senior officials from Union Pacific railroad, the Austin–San Antonio commuter rail district and state leaders to further discuss the details of moving UP freight service off the MoPac/ South Central Austin line to a corridor well east of the Austin metropolitan area. That move would free up those tracks for commuter rail service between Georgetown and San Antonio. The Mayor has supported commuter rail service as one of the necessary components to addressing Austin’s traffic problems. He has also urged toll road supporters to step up to the challenge of getting a positive vote for Capital Metro’s proposed rail line from Leander to downtown . . . Volunteers working on the weekend . . . Members of the Planning Commission will hold a retreat on Saturday, beginning at 9:30am in Room 325 of One Texas Center. One reason for the timing of the retreat is an influx of new members to the commission . . . Next week . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will hold a special called meeting Monday night to make a decision on a demolition permit for property at 1108 W. 25th Street.

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