“NAF saw what I saw when I started with SPNN, which is that the organization is really at a crest.”

Chad Johnston, Executive Director, SPNN

Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN) is a nonprofit whose existence of more than three decades has straddled many changes in public media. Founded in 1984 on the model of public access TV as a voice for its city’s residents, it has seen major changes both in St. Paul’s demographic makeup and a digital revolution that has permanently shifted the use of media to provide access for authentic community voices.

Changes with the New Agreement         

Through a franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul, Comcast is obligated to provide public, education, and government channels—a long-term, confirmed funding source for SPNN. This revenue source hit a snag in March 2015 when negotiations over the latest agreement led to SPNN quickly being forced out of the space it had previously occupied.

“Part of this renegotiation schedule was that Comcast now was paying a percentage of its gross revenues [to SPNN],” says executive director Chad Johnston, who was hired during this period to lead a strategic plan that now included the search for a new facility. While he points out that this renegotiated agreement is a net positive for his organization, it also pushed back scheduled payments and ended a previous relationship in which Comcast paid for SPNN’s rent in a traditional building in downtown St. Paul. While SPNN’s board had been planning a move for several years, this change necessitated more rapid action than had been envisioned.

Growing Services and Impact

NAF worked with SPNN after it had selected its new home: the Vandalia Tower project, in the Creative Enterprise Zone, a complex of industrial buildings that has become a model of placemaking. SPNN’s spacious, technologically vibrant headquarters rubs shoulders with NAF client Independent Filmmaking Project (for whom NAF also provided financing for leasehold improvements), art studios, a theater company, a brewery, architects, and a marketing agency.

NAF provided loans to cover the move, operations, and new technological investments. “The reality, mission-wise, is that we’ve grown our services and impact,” Johnston says. “So we knew that staying in the traditional office space downtown wasn’t going to cut it. It was difficult to grow there, and we need a space that can evolve as quickly as the technology evolves.”

As part of this shift, SPNN conducted a deep dive into its business model, with technical and consulting assistance from NAF. “The numbers now look pretty good,” says Johnston. “The funding community recognized that this was a unique situation, and if they didn’t step up now we might not continue to be around.

“NAF saw what I saw when I started with SPNN,” Johnston says, “which is that the organization is really at a crest. We’ve reached a certain level of maturity as an organization at which we’re poised to make some cool [stuff] happen. We’re being truly Minnesotan—we’re humble and we don’t like to toot our own horns—but the things that are happening here are being recognized all over the U.S.”

A Space to Call Home

These happenings include digital communications initiatives with projects serving Hmong Americans, interfaith outreach organizations, public libraries, adult education, housing initiatives, schools, and workforce centers to utilize SPNN’s technological assets and training resources to facilitate communication using the latest digital video technology. Youth classes and workshops serve young people after school and offer internships. The SPNN Access Department provides resources for community members to create their own programs to tell their own stories, and classes include specialty workshops on documentary filmmaking as well as for-credit partnerships with Twin Cities’ colleges.

“One thing we hadn’t had was control over our own destiny in terms of place,” Johnston adds. “We serve people who are scared of technology and need a safe place to learn about it. We have youth who need a physical place to call home and feel connected. The process of making this very ethereal media is what makes it special. This space celebrates and explores that in a very public way, through all of the connections happening all through this physical space.”

NAF is proud to partner with SPNN as it continues to define its role in the ever-changing world of digital technology. To learn more about SPNN, go here