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Issue Date: September 2005 Issue

Electric Avenue

Community reach is limitless as technology meets culture.

Kristen Hampshire

It started with space — a relationship built solely on sharing 240,000 square feet like duplex neighbors, tenant and landlord: Both Playhouse Square Foundation andideastream — the entity combining 90.3 WCPN and WVIZ/PBS — needed room to grow.

Today, the spatial relationship only scratches the surface of ways the two non-profits are sharing resources.Ultimately, a deep-seated sense of fiscal responsibility and programmatic synergy focused the organizations, and a partnership to create Idea Center was born: a creative junction physically centered in Cleveland’s burgeoning Theater District neighborhood.

“When we started, it was such a practical discussion,” says Jerry Wareham, president and CEO of ideastream. “As the concept of the Idea Center evolves, we realize we’ve created something that is bigger than itself. It really is a regional resource.”

An historic centerpiece of the Theater District, One Playhouse Square at 1375 Euclid Ave. is an ideal location for the two organizations. The building fits the community-accessible goals that both desire and contains ample area for expansion.

“The early concept (in 2000) was that ideastream needed a space, and we had space to offer,” explains Art Falco, president and CEO of Playhouse Square Foundation.

Then, ideastream and Playhouse Square began to hatch plans to rehabilitate the building, which had been 70 percent vacant for some 20 years. Playhouse Square Foundation needed dedicated space for its arts education programs and a 300-seat theater; ideastream needed to consolidate its operations and wanted to add a second television studio. Both called for classrooms, meeting spaces and reception areas.

Little by little, the rapport built around spatial and facility needs evolved into split-building ownership, then into a collaborative building-design effort to realize construction efficiencies.

“As we started taking a look at our overlaps, we found that we could share about 35 percent of the space and assume 92,000 square feet of the building, saving $5 to $7 million,” Falco notes.

Financial relief piqued more discussion. Conversation bubbled about ways the organizations could mesh resources, and a high-speed brainstorm ensued between boardrooms — ideas lobbed between programming and content staffs, education departments, fund-raising committees and technology specialists. Two creative groups merged into one and began to draw a plan on the same drafting table.

“We agreed to be formal partners in the development of the building,” Falco says. “Then, we took it one step further, which is somewhat unusual in this community.”

Programmatic similarities surfaced.

Wareham adds, “We began to share with one another what things we did programmatically and educationally, and so in that, the conversation turned from, ‘What kind of square footage do you need?’ to ‘Really — you do that?’”

A synergy sprouted.

Wareham says the true turning point in their relationship occurred during a meeting to discuss fund raising for the $42-million project.

“We were all set,” Wareham comments. “We were going to do collaborative but separate campaigns. Then one of the board leaders stopped and said, ‘You know, this really isn’t about Playhouse Square and ideastream, this is about one campaign, one project to benefit the community and for economic development.’” In 2002, the organizations joined forces to conduct a single, $27.4 million campaign.

Their missions coalesced under common themes: education, cultural enrichment, discovery and innovation. Though the organizations remain separate non-profit entities with independent operations, boards and staffs, they share a goal to connect programs, content and services to a wider audience through technology.

Four principal goals guided the Idea Center project, Wareham says. The partners want the facility to be a great community gathering place where people interact with one another and with the arts and technology; a place that facilitates excellent electronic networking, allowing people to connect with one another and with knowledge and information through technology; a place that facilitates effective and high-quality administration of a wide range of constantly changing programs, projects and services; and a place that facilitates excellent content development and production. The space must nurture the creative process and the work of teams of creative individuals.

Idea Center brings together the studios and personnel of WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN ideastream, whose operations over the past four years have been dispersed in three locations around Cleveland. The all-new broadcast facility allows ideastream to leverage digital technology that will allow it to improve the quality and reach of its programming.

Idea Center also provides a new home for Playhouse Square arts education activities, including master classes and theater programs. “A vast improvement from holding class in theater lobbies,” notes Colleen Porter, director of arts education for Playhouse Square Foundation.

By sharing space with ideastream at Idea Center, the Playhouse Square Foundation arts education department will have access to electronic delivery systems, allowing teachers and students in off-site locations to participate in cultural learning opportunities, Porter explains.

Within a lower-level education center, classrooms are set up for teachers to learn how to use new technologies and emerging content sources so they may incorporate them into lesson plans and curricula. Arts education classrooms provide space for professional development workshops for educators, after-school programs for teens, classes for downtown professionals and family workshops.

Through television, radio, Internet and broadband interactive video distance learning, the organizations can project programs from almost any area within Idea Center to virtually any location outside the building. Wareham notes: “There are endless ways we can take content from the facility and deliver it to people who otherwise could not participate. And that is unique.”

Driving north down East 14th Street toward the heart of the Theater District, the Idea Center stands as a six-story reminder of Cleveland’s rich cultural history and its promising, progressive future.

Inside, at street level, original 20-foot columns hint at the building’s 93 years; exposed ducts and wires, a stainless steel grand staircase and behind-the-scenes acoustics outfitted for best-quality broadcasting are evidence of the center’s high-tech present.

“It’s an incredible marriage of industrial past and leading-edge design and technology,” Falco says.

Collaboration defined the design process. In a close day-to-day working relationship spearheaded by Kathryn (Kit) Jensen, ideastream chief operating officer, the organizations refined their plans and redirected expectations, leveraging the potential of the building as construction and redevelopment proceeded over the past two years.

The building’s entrance and access to the street-front broadcast and dance studios are examples of the successful form-meets-function collaboration cited by Jensen. “We’ve tried to maximize the transparency for the public, not only on the street, but also as you enter the building,” Jensen describes, noting a set of sliding glass doors between the building lobby and the broadcast studio that can be closed to accommodate TV or radio production, or opened for receptions or other events.

“From a design and construction standpoint, Idea Center has been a relatively complex undertaking. Fortunately ideastream and Playhouse Square have collaborated with some of the best design, engineering and contracting talent around,” says Jensen.

Westlake Reed Leskosky, the lead architects; URS, primary engineering and building core designers; and Turner Construction, the project’s lead contractor, have contributed significantly, individually and collectively to great success throughout the building process, and ultimately, to improving the programming and services that will be delivered from Idea Center, Jensen observes.

The center’s black-box studio theater is emblematic of the building’s overall flexibility and the potential for the organizations. Dubbed “Studio 1,” this all-new addition to the historic structure — constructed in a space formerly occupied by a loading dock — was purpose-built as a quickly reconfigurable media–performance center. With superior acoustics and a specially designed flooring system, Studio 1 has a lighting grid that accommodates the needs of both television production and live performance.

“The fact that it is a fully functioning studio and a fully functioning theater means that we can take any in-studio activity out to others through broadcast or broadband distance learning,” Wareham says. “With interactive technologies, people off site can not only watch, they can participate — they can speak out and be seen in the studio-theater.”

The two organizations will continue to find ways to leverage the building’s assets, Falco says. “As we share space on a daily basis, thinking of the creative possibilities with our two staffs, we’ll only be inhibited by our imaginations.”

The collaboration to redevelop One Playhouse Square into Idea Center represents one scene in a larger script to revitalize Cleveland. Once Idea Center is fully developed and occupied, 500 people will work, dine, shop and infuse vitality into the district, Falco predicts. “This project is the continuation of creating a very dynamic theater district, and this center will be a major component,” he says.

“Economic development is done in many ways, and one of the ways it is done is one piece at a time,” Wareham says. “To the extent that we improve this district, we will improve downtown; and to the extent we improve downtown, we improve the region.”

What’s more, the collaboration is a lesson in sharing. A tale of how two otherwise independent organizations saw a common public interest and pooled their resources for the benefit of the community.

Falco expects Idea Center will provide a catalyst for other organizations and businesses to locate, or want to collaborate with others, in the area. “We are just scratching the surface of that vast potential,” he says.

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