Carbondale’s Third Street Center is not hard to find. It’s at the very end of, you guessed it, Third Street, about a block south of the new Carbondale Branch Library. The center is in its fourth year and the building, which used to house the Carbondale Elementary School, is experiencing a second incarnation as a weather-tight, solar-powered hub for community non-profits, small businesses, and artists.
“[The center] will be 100 percent solar on October 21, 2013,” says facilities manager Mark Taylor.
Energy efficiency is crucial to the mission of the center, part of which is to provide affordable and sustainable long-term office and studio space. Last year, the Third Street Center (3TC) saved 18 percent on natural gas and used 12 percent less electricity.
“Costs have gone up but our energy efficiency program has kept utilities low, which helps all of us,” added Jody Ensign, 3TC executive director.
Ensign has almost 40 years of experience managing nonprofits in the area. She was director of Friends of the Wheeler Opera House and Arts West Aspen, and helped found the first Aspen Youth Center. She also managed the Basalt Gallery for 15 years before coming to 3TC and has graced the boards of other organizations, including Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities.
She said 3TC was an idea whose time had come.
“Throughout the 1980s and ’90s as more and more nonprofits moved downvalley and as commercial rents went up,” she explained, “it became harder and harder every year to secure affordable, long-term office space.”
A lot of nonprofit organizations signed short-term leases, she added, because landlords were either trying to sell the property or develop it.
“Everyone’s [nonprofit] homes were in question. There was no long-term security,” she said.
So, in 2008, when the Carbondale Elementary School building became available, community members and town officials set up a land-swap with the Re-1 School District to create 3TC, now home to 39 nonprofits and small businesses. 3TC signed a 49-year lease with the Town of Carbondale, said Ensign.
“It’s for a dollar a year and we paid it in full at our grand opening in 2010.”
Development and renovation costs have been covered by individual contributions and grants and loans from Garfield County, the Town of Carbondale, the Manaus Fund and Alpine Bank.
Both Ensign and Taylor agree that 3TC is Carbondale’s community center, providing opportunities for its own community of tenants and the community at-large to get to know each other.
“The [Carbondale Recreation Center] exercises our bodies,” offered Ensign. “The Third Street Center exercises our minds and spirits.”
Tenants have access to common spaces, including a conference room for meetings, as well as two larger rooms — the Round Room and the Calaway Room — for public events and private parties. The PAC3 concert venue is also in the building. All of this brings people to the center and money to the area.
“Because there are so many nonprofits in the building, others have come from Denver to do trainings,” said Ensign. “We get 1,500 to 2,000 people a week through here.”
It’s hard to say who benefits most from 3TC because there are also perks to being a tenant. Not only is the rent steady and affordable but the center is a sort of creative nexus. Everyone meets monthly to share general improvement ideas and they also work together to create better projects. “When nonprofits are working together, there’s a support group of like-minded people, creating programs for the community,” said Ensign. “Everyone collaborates and brainstorms. It’s healthy to work that way.”
Lynn Burton, editor of the Sopris Sun, a non-profit newspaper quartered at 3TC, said working conditions at the center are better than the Sun’s previous office in town.
“We were in the basement and sort of isolated,” he explained.
Now, the paper shares an above-ground office with Lift-Up.
“People come by and drop in. It’s a much friendlier atmosphere,” he said.
The Third Street Center has become an example for other towns seeking new uses for old buildings.
“We are a model for recycling, reusing, and repurposing,” said Ensign.
She added that the building’s use came full-circle in 2011 when Roaring Fork High School seniors chose 3TC’s Round Room for their spring prom.
”They started school here when it was Carbondale Elementary,” she mused. “And, chose to have their high school prom [at the Third Street Center].”
For a list of upcoming events, visit www.thirdstreetcenter.net.