KEXP’s executive director and others were surprised this week when nearly $2 million in proposed state funding for the station’s new Seattle Center home was left out of the capital budget. A million dollars has been restored — but the rest, for now, remains in question.
OLYMPIA — When Tom Mara talks about how KEXP public radio’s new Seattle Center home will create viewing galleries for locals and tourists to watch the station’s famed in-studio performances, his voice perks right up.
“It brings an energy dimension and a music force into the neighborhood of Uptown,” Mara, KEXP’s executive director, said Friday of the $15 million project sited near the Space Needle.
But it seems the charm of KEXP — which has grown since its 1972 inception as a small college station to a mainstay of Seattle’s independent music scene — does not extend to Olympia.
Wednesday brought surprise and disappointment to Mara and others with news that the hoped-for $2 million in state funding was not included in the GOP-controlled Senate’s capital budget. The release of the capital budget — which is separate from the state’s operating budget — that morning sent the station scrambling to make a public hearing scheduled that afternoon.
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“At 9:45 a.m. we were in Seattle,” said Mara. “At noon, we’re down in Olympia arguing for KEXP.”
After KEXP (90.3 FM) argued its case, Sen. Karen Keiser, of Kent, the lead Democrat working on the capital budget, successfully offered an amendment to restore $1 million of the $1.866 million in proposed funding.
Neither Keiser nor Sen. Jim Honeyford, of Sunnyside, and the GOP’s lead member for the capital budget in the Senate, was available Friday for comment.
Some lawmakers questioned the public impact of KEXP’s project, according to Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and committee vice chairman.
“Originally, I don’t think the connection to that category was very clear, and that was why it was pulled out,” Dammeier said.
Introducing her amendment in a committee vote on Thursday, Keiser said the confusion was an error on her part, saying she had thought KEXP’s request was simply for building a radio station. Dammeier and Honeyford, among others, supported the amendment.
But the question remains why funding for KEXP’s new home — which was ranked second in priority on a list of 14 arts projects — was only partly restored.
Proposals like KEXP’s are vetted through the Building for the Arts program, which examines funding requests to see whether nonprofits can complete and operate their projects, and whether a community needs them. Administered by the state Department of Commerce, the program was created to make a merit-based system and keep lawmakers from cherry-picking arts projects, according to Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.
Kohl-Welles, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, offered an amendment to restore full funding to that and other projects on the list, but that effort failed.
“I had no reason to think KEXP is vulnerable,” she said.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, was likewise stumped by the change. The capital budget had already been approved by the state House, which included full funding for the KEXP project.
“I would be hard-pressed to explain the Senate to you,” said Dunshee, adding later: “When you get those [project] lists, you should leave them alone.”
The project relocates KEXP from Dexter Avenue, just north of Denny Way, to a less-cramped space adjacent the KeyArena.
The Seattle Center home would offer a gallery for 75 people to watch the station’s in-studio performances. It will include a resource space where artists can learn how to better survive the ever-turbulent music industry. And touring bands would find relief from the stink of road stints: the new home would provide showers and a washer and dryer, according to Mara.
“The idea here is to take KEXP’s music discovery mission and bring it to a public platform,” said Mara. The project is financed by bonds, he added, and “is not pitting arts organizations against health, education, etc.”
Other funding for the project comes from listeners and major donors, but the proposed state share would be the single largest source of money. The decrease to $1 million won’t stop the station from moving — work has already begun — but according to Mara it could affect how much of the vision eventually gets built.
There are at least two more steps during which funding could be restored — first when the Senate takes a floor vote on the capital budget, which could come next week, and later when the two parties negotiate a final version.
Kohl-Welles said she hopes lawmakers do so.
“Two million would be better than 1 million,” she said, “and 1 million is better than zero.”