Two years of collaborative success at Carbondale’s Third Street Center

John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Post IndependentFiber artist Jill Scher is one of five artists sharing Studio 10 at the Third Street Center in Carbondale.

CARBONDALE – In a building where Carbondale children once learned, played and matured, an older crowd is now earnestly engaged in efforts to make the world a better place.

The nonprofit Third Street Center, which turns two years old in June, still is a place for learning and experiencing new things in classes, seminars and activities.

But the process, taking place in a building that previously housed Carbondale Elementary School, has more to do with environmental responsibility, personal improvement and cultural experimentation than, say, learning how to read and write.

“We love the idea that we’re an educational organization, and we are now working out of a former elementary school,” said Tresi Houpt, executive director of Solar Energy International, one of the 40-odd nonprofits that now call the Third Street Center home.

Of the 40 tenants, all but five are nonprofits, and many of them find ways to work together, said Jody Ensign, executive director of the nonprofit Third Street Center organization, which manages the facility.

“Why it’s perceived to be so important to the community, I think, is because of the collaborative atmosphere that’s here,” Ensign said.

Tenants work together on shows and events, she said, and community members rent space for a wider array of activities, such as graduation and birthday parties, religious services, seminars and lectures.

Third Street Center was born from a collaborative idea that brought together Carbondale’s town government, the Roaring Fork School District and the local arts and nonprofit communities.

The old school was saved from the wrecking ball after lengthy negotiations, a land swap between the town and the school district, and a $4.7 million fundraising campaign to pay for renovations and upgrades to the building.

More than half of that renovation budget, according to Executive Director Jody Ensign, came in the form of a $2.5 million loan from Alpine Bank, which the center is paying off over time using revenues from tenants and event bookings.

The Third Street Center organization is governed by a 10-member community board of directors and employs two managers: Ensign as executive director and Mark Wolfe Webber as the facility manager.

“It keeps me hopping,” said Ensign, who manages the books, tenant leasing and schedules room rentals. She is also planning for the center’s upcoming second birthday party to be held June 1.

Third Street Center’s 2012 budget is more than $608,000. About half the budget is covered by rent from long-term tenants, estimated at $303,500. Tenants also pay a share of common area maintenance. The center is also counting on about $152,000 in contributions and grants.

The town of Carbondale leases the property to the center for $1 per year, but gives no other support to the institution. Trustee John Foulkrod serves on the center’s board as liaison to town government.

The center comprises roughly 45,000 square feet. Its former classrooms are now offices, activity rooms and a cafe, its gymnasium is now the PAC3 performing arts center, its library is a well-used community meeting room, and its unique Round Room serves as an art gallery, dance hall or event space.

In the lawn south of the building, home bakers have built a community bread oven and gardening activists are planning another community garden for Carbondale.

Atop the building are two solar energy systems that illustrate the building’s makeover as a center of sustainability. The solar electric panels supply about 40 percent of the building’s energy demands, and a solar hot water system heats water for sinks, kitchen uses and some space heating.

In remodeling the old school, crews installed double-paned windows, high-efficiency boilers, operable skylights and light tubes that draw daylight into rooms and hallways, and boosted roof insulation to keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer.

Wolfe Webber, who humorously tagged himself as “the facility baby sitter,” said most of the infrastructure of the building is in good shape and will not require replacement in the near future.

But there have been problems, such as a lightning strike that recently fried some Internet equipment, a fire alarm panel and the phone system. The Third Street Center’s board is now considering a system of lightning rods to deflect future strikes.

“We’re had some minor vandalism, some teenagers on the roof over the weekend. Security is a little bit of an issue,” Wolfe Webber said.

He is developing a schedule of building improvements for the coming years, which would need to be reviewed by the board of directors and incorporated into the long term budget for the center.

“The building gets constant use,” he said, even more than when it was in use as an elementary school. “It takes daily upkeep.”

Down the eastern corridor of the facility, known as the Long Hall, the mood is quiet on a recent Wednesday.

Lights are kept to a minimum, as is heat in the winter, and through the hallway windows can be spied some very intent faces peering at computer screens while fingers fly over keyboards.

On the western side is the oldest part of the building, called The Round Room, which was built in the 1960s, Ensign said.

One recent weekday, the Round Room reverberated with the sounds of rehearsal, as choreographer Marisa Post worked with dancers in the upcoming production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical being put on in June by the newly formed Sol Theater Co.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Logan Carter, head of Sol Theater, of the center and its open-arms attitude. “There’s a lot of space to do so many different things.”

The Carbondale Council on the Arts and Humanities (CCAH), which was involved in the creative effort to keep the Third Street Center as a public institution, occupies a combination of gallery, classroom and offices just off the Round Room.

“CCAH really needed a home,” said director Ro Mead, recalling that the organization for years rented half of the old and cramped post office building on Main Street, where Carbondale Beer Works is now.

“It was important for CCAH to support the town and what they were doing,” Mead continued, “and it was just the perfect opportunity.”

The new CCAH space is three times larger than the organization’s former quarters, at 2,200 square feet.

“We tripled our space and tripled the scope of the organization,” Mead said, explaining that CCAH has boosted its roster of programs and activities since relocating.

Ensign appreciates the high level of activity throughout the building, whether its daytime, evenings or weekends. “The most fun thing, I think, is the variety of programs. There’s somebody always dancing, or singing, or acting.”

At Solar Energy International (SEI), Houpt said aside from being newer and larger than the organization’s former quarters, the center “is really a more functional workspace for SEI.”

SEI moved to Third Street from Carbondale’s earlier venture in forming a physical home for nonprofits, the old town hall building at Second and Main.

Physicist, photographer and long-time valley philanthropist George Stranahan is connected to several entities in the center.

Among them are the Manaus Fund, which offers support to social entrepreneurs; Flying Dog Arts, which represents such artists as the late Hunter S. Thompson, Stranahan himself, Earl Biss and Russell Chatham; and the Creative Spark Studio of Sheri Gaynor.

A photo exhibit at the CCAH gallery called “The Child’s Eye” features photos shot by children and teens, using cameras supplied by the organizers, who included Gaynor, Stranahan and others.

“It works, and it continues to work better,” Stranahan said about Third Street.

Although the facility’s future is anything but planned out, Ensign said one thing is certain – the Third Street Center is gaining fame as a model for other communities hoping to do something similar.

“We get calls all the time from other towns saying, ‘How do you do this?’ ” Ensign said. “It’s a great example of all these entities coming together to make something really exciting, and of benefit to the whole region.”

She said one of the potential future goals of the center is to conduct seminars along those lines.

“I think we all want people to see that Third Street Center is a model,” Ensign continued. “That’s what I think is it’s greatest legacy so far. It’s a shining example of reuse of an old building.”

Not to mention the power of community-wide networking to get things done.