Kilbourne Group faces wrath of public TV, radio fans over Block 9 tower
FARGO — Prairie Public broadcasting supporters unhappy with the threat the new Block 9 high-rise poses to their TV and radio signals crashed a briefing held by the developer Tuesday, July 17.
The Kilbourne Group's 18-story tower would be built near the broadcaster's downtown headquarters, potentially blocking broadcast signals to most of the state.
Keith Leier, the Block 9 project manager, fielded about a dozen angry questions from the audience such as why is his firm proceeding with construction without resolving this issue? And shouldn't Kilbourne pay for all this if it's causing the problem?
"They have been a standard mainstay in downtown and a public service for many, many years and blocking their ability to reach the public is kind of like you building in Roberts Alley and if it blocks the entrance to a business like the coffeeshop or the Boiler Room," said Jen Walla, who came to the meeting with her young son. "Your entrance is totally blocked, and... your customers can't get to you. That's not an ethical business practice."
Leier could only say over and over that consultants are looking for the best long-term solution and Kilbourne is waiting for an answer.
John Harris, Prairie Public's president and CEO, stood quietly in the back throughout the meeting but was asked by reporters for comments afterward. He said he feels "anxious" about what happens next. "Once they start digging, we definitely have a timeline," he said. "We only have until they get to a level of about 100 and some odd feet before we have to have a solution."
Asked if he asked Prairie Public supporters to come to the meeting, he said he didn't but he's glad they did. "It makes me feel proud for who I work for."
Prairie Public has a 125-foot monopole behind its downtown headquarters with microwave transmitters that relay its TV and radio signals to two big antennas: one north of Wheatland, N.D., that further relays signals to the west and north, and one near Amenia, N.D., that mostly serves the Fargo region.
As Leier recognized, the 235-foot Block 9 tower will block the microwaves aimed at the Wheatland antenna while the microwaves aimed at the Amenia antenna will just squeak by to the north.
Leier told the audience the Amenia antenna is the backup for the Wheatland antenna, but was quickly corrected by John Peterson, Prairie Public's engineering and operations manager. As Peterson explained to The Forum, the Amenia antenna might be a backup for the Fargo region, but its reach is limited. If the Wheatland antenna is blocked, Prairie Public goes dark in most of the state.
If nothing is done, the Block 9 tower is expected to reach a height where it'll block the broadcaster's signals about nine months after construction begins, according to Leier. Groundbreaking is expected in late August or early September.
Prairie Public has considered three ways around the problem. It could rent space for its antennas on top of Block 9 or another tall building nearby, such as the 207-foot Radisson Hotel. It could install a higher monopole in the police station parking lot behind its neighbor, American Federal Bank. Or it could rent fiber-optic lines to connect its downtown headquarters directly to the Wheatland antenna.
Leier, who stressed the need for a "long-term solution" that won't be undone by another tall building, said he favors fiber optics.
Prairie Public, with a limited budget that's been trimmed by the Legislature, has wanted to avoid fiber optics because they're more expensive. And, as Harris has said, a backhoe could cut the fiber and take the broadcaster off the air.
An estimate from last spring suggested fiber optics would cost $500,000 while a new monopole might cost $100,000 or more.
A key question is who will pay and how much.
From Kilbourne's perspective, the problem seems more Prairie Public's than the developer's.
When one Prairie Public supporter at another briefing held Tuesday morning suggested the developer should pay because its high-rise is harming an established organization, Kilbourne President Mike Allmendinger talked about "air rights." He said Prairie Public doesn't own the space over the site of the Block 9 tower, US Bank does.
US Bank is expected to sell the land to Kilbourne.
With that in mind, he suggested Prairie Public should have built its antenna somewhere else instead of taking the risk that some building would be constructed in its transmitters' lines of sight.
Leier took a softer approach at the afternoon briefing.
"We're not walking away from this. We're not saying it's Prairie Public's problem," he said. He's working with the city and a consultant and has assembled cost estimates for potential solutions, he said.
Abby Gold, a Prairie Public supporter, said she hopes any solution is "cost neutral" for Prairie Public. "That's because those members across the state and in Minnesota — we've all paid into that tower, and so the membership owns the tower, and we shouldn't have to pay again."