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Economic Development

FEATURE: Television and Film Production Studio proposed for Coastal Empire Fairgrounds by Local Businessman and State Rep. J. Craig Gordon

Category: Economic Development

PHOTO:  Front gate of Coastal Empire Fairgrounds on Meddin Street in Savannah

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

February 27, 2017 - Savannah native and State Rep. J. Craig Gordon (pictured) is working on a proposal to purchase approximately 25% of the land at the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds owned by the City of Savannah, and convert it immediately into a full-service studio complex for film and television. 

Gordon is currently meeting individually with each of the city’s Aldermen and Mayor Eddie DeLoach to discuss his proposal, and gather their input and suggestions on how best to pursue the project.  He has also met with neighborhood association groups and local economic development leaders.

Instead of building an ‘Emerald City’ superstructure for hundreds of millions of dollars, Gordon has gathered a group of local investors with a vision to create local jobs through training Savannah residents with the professional skills needed by television and film production companies.

He has also assembled industry experts to run the studio. The project would involve rehabbing the existing structures on the front 15 acres of the Fairgrounds, and adding a few more buildings to immediately provide the missing infrastructure that has been keeping potentially lucrative productions from filming in Savannah, according to SBJ sources.

Rep. J. Craig Gordon is a Savannah native that grew up right around the corner from the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds.  Upon graduation from A.E. Beach High School in 1995, he enrolled in Savannah State University where he majored in Business Administration.  In 1997 he interned at Walt Disney World’s MGM Studios and went on to complete his undergraduate studies at Armstrong-Atlantic State University where he graduated in 2000.

After graduation, he was appointed as an assistant to the Director of Marketing for the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, and later became involved in his family’s healthcare company.  In 2006, he was appointed CEO of Statewide Healthcare, Inc. by its Board of Directors, and still oversees the operation of the company which currently has over 250 employees and offices in Savannah, Columbus, Macon, and Albany, and injects a minimum of $2 million into the Georgia economy each year, according to his representatives.

He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives for the 163rd District in 2006 where he has now served for over a decade.

There is no full-production studio in the Savannah market, currently.

Gordon and his group has identified a management team of industry experts, and has brought in construction experts to look at the cow barn, hanger and front offices to assess the feasibility of converting the current buildings on the 15 acres for a quick conversion to a working production studio.

A key area of focus for Gordon is local ownership, community support, and creating high-paying local jobs; the venture is not backed by outside large corporations or investment banks.

Instead, it will have a local owner actually from the community and will be an organic, homegrown, cooperative enterprise with the City, working with organized labor, higher education resources to train industry-qualified local employees, and in conjunction with the local business community. 

Local ownership is one of the primary reasons this proposal has garnered support and enthusiasm to date, by those Gordon has met with, both from individuals and the community associations, they add. 

Rep. Gordon has assembled a commitment from a highly-qualified management team, with extensive industry and studio experience, to manage the day-to-day operations of the studio if the project moves forward. 

They are also envisioning an apprenticeship program that will offer what he terms “unprecedented” job creation in the local television and film industry here, particularly in the African American community. 

While this proposal presents many exciting opportunities, none have the potential to revolutionize the community like the proposed apprenticeship program.  IATSE Local 491 is finalizing an agreement with both Savannah State and Savannah Tech to teach an apprenticeship training and safety program on site.  Graduates of the program will be offered immediate union membership and placement on productions.  The union foresees a minimum of 100 new jobs being created per year, at an average starting salary between $50,000.00-$80,000.00 (as well as benefits including health insurance and retirement), according to Gordon’s legal representative.

The proposal includes building affordable housing on site for skilled workers, and the technical crews that come in with production companies using the studio complex. 

Reportedly, for example, at its height the television show “Underground,” had to rent 200 hotel rooms a night.  At pivotal months, such as March, not only are hotel rooms hard to come by, but they are very expensive.  The Gordon group is now working with a company that builds pre-fabbed units used by industry production companies to address this need, which they believe will make Aeroscope Studios very attractive.

Gordon is also focused on the preservation of the existing buildings on the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds, with a plan to preserve them by renovating the existing structures rather than razing them and building a new facility. Their plan will preserve and protect the historic nature of the site, they state.  The surrounding community has indicated that this is very important to them, according to meetings with neighborhood association representatives.  

And the timing?  Once the purchase is approved, it is estimated that within 30 days, accomplished the ‘cattle palace’ can be to a working shop/mill for building sets; the hangar can be converted into a working soundstage and catering space; and the existing office building can be converted into production office space and an industrial kitchen. 

The total construction cost has been estimated at $350,000 to$400,000, projects that will enable production of television and film projects to begin immediately. 

Within 90 days, the remainder of their ‘Phase 1’ can be completed which includes:  constructing 32 units of production housing  - the biggest obstacle faced by productions coming to Savannah; constructing a classroom for the apprenticeship program; and converting the remaining existing structures into storage, hair and makeup, wardrobe, prop house, childcare facility, and all other production needs.  Phase 1 also includes upgrading the fence and security, with total preservation and renovation costs estimated at $1.1 million.

The group believes that there is interest by productions to get in even and start renting the studio as soon as the first level of work is completed, prior to the balance of Phase 1 being completed - the demand it that strong. 

Rep. Gordon has $2.5 million already fully funded to cover the construction of Phase 1 as well as the purchase of the land, according to his legal representatives.

And, one television series and two films have already committed to using the facility if constructed.  Further, as part of the apprenticeship program, Savannah Tech has expressed interest in operating a childcare center on site for crew members and apprentices, according to Atty. Charles Bowen, representing Gordon and the investors group.  “This will be another major draw, as it will make this facility the only one in the entire country that provides on-site childcare,” according to Bowen who is an entertainment industry lawyer, headquartered in Savannah, owner of The Bowen Law Group.    

Statistics regarding the creation of similar structures in other cities have shown the economic impact to be both immediate and dramatic, they state.  The local community will be revitalized, property values will increase, and surrounding business in the immediate area will more than double in sales immediately, based on their research when a studio enters an area.

According to the 2016 statistics from the MPAA, the average amount of money one production introduces into the local economy is $18 million.  New businesses supportive of the industry (restaurants, grocery stores, equipment rental, etc.) will be drawn to the remainder of the fairgrounds to which the City can lease space, sell the remaining acreage at higher rates, or retain the land and garner yearly income, in their opinion. 

However, Gordon’s proposal includes purchasing additional land for the future construction of Phase 2.  Once Phase 1 is complete, it is estimated that the entire loan could be paid back within three to four years.  At that point, the local ownership group could procure new funding for the construction of a much larger custom-built structure that could house three 20,000 sq. ft. stages (with the ability to expand to one 60,000 sq. ft. stage), as well as additional housing and production office space. 

This would enable Aeroscope Studios to attract productions of much greater size and scope. 

And, the moving “Baywatch,” which rented land from the former owners of the land, The Exchange Club of Savannah, left behind a foundation for an extremely large water tank that was used in their filming.  That cost the production company $1.5 million to construct due to the rebar and supportive structure to build the large water tank.  That which means that a larger custom-built stage could offer productions with a water tank feature, a rare and distinguishing asset that Aeroscope Studios could offer.   This would be the only studio in the entire State of Georgia with such a feature, Bowen confirmed.

Based upon a partnership between Aeroscope Studios and Southern Gateway Production Services, any production considering Aeroscope would have access to:  the 30% Georgia state tax credit;  the 10% local incentive offered by SEDA;  stage, office, construction, and lodging space and all other needed facilities in one central location at the lowest cost in the state; access to the IATSE national term agreement; and the opportunity to save money through the provision of childcare, apprentices, and other exclusive benefits.  “Response from productions to this possibility has been universally enthusiastic,” Bowen stated.  

“This proposal is the true definition of a win-win proposition - productions, the local community, the entire City of Savannah, the future employees, and the local entertainment and business community all benefit,” said Gordon, in an interview today.

Under this proposal, the City would not have to build low-cost housing, which has also been a concern by many area residents who wanted to see the Fairgrounds land to create jobs and local business opportunities.  And, the City would recoup a portion of the money spent to purchase the Fairgrounds property last year.

“The perfect set of circumstances has converged to provide an opportunity to revitalize the neighborhood, stimulate the local economy, build the local entertainment industry and workforce, and help to address Savannah’s high poverty rate.  This offers the City the opportunity to take what was once a controversial decision to purchase the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds, and turn it into one of the smartest, most innovative and forward-thinking decisions the City has ever made,” Rep. Gordon concluded. 

Aeroscope Studios is represented by The Bowen Law Group. 

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