One of two developers with plans to transform the former Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte has pulled out of consideration.
ARK Ventures, the Charlotte group that developed the N.C. Music Factory uptown, had proposed to the city a $51 million entertainment/activity plan on 27 acres of the 80-acre site.
ARK’s owners, Rick and Noah Lazes of Charlotte, said the site could include a 40,000-square-foot artificial ski slope, a skateboard park, wave pool and ice skating rink.
But on Tuesday, the Lazeses notified the city that they were dropping out.
Rick Lazes said Wednesday the debate over what should be built on the site had become too political. He referred to efforts by a rival development group to build community support for its plan to build a movie studio.
“The city needs to decide what they want to do and what level of support they’re willing to provide,” Lazes said. “We just felt like it was in the best interest of the city to let them vet through this other option.”
That leaves one proposal by Studio Charlotte Development for a Charlotte City Council economic development committee to consider at noon Thursday.
The group, a partnership between Bert Hesse of Charlotte and PacificaVentures LLC, has proposed building a movie studio with more than 150,000 square feet of sound stages and studio space on the site.
After that is built, Hesse said he planned to develop the rest of the site with retail and office space, a hotel and a film school.
Hesse said he hopes Wednesday’s development opens the door for his group to win City Council approval for its plan and to begin moving it toward reality.
“This is now going to allow us to move forward now with the city to hopefully create a development that will have an impact not only on the Eastland area, but on the entire region,” he said.
Rick Lazes said Hesse called a community meeting on Monday in east Charlotte that was an attempt to drum up support for the studio project. He saw it as a sign that the debate would become a political issue during this fall’s City Council elections.
It’s not clear yet how much city money would go to the project. It’s possible the city won’t recoup the $13.2 million it spent to buy the site and it might not recover the nearly $900,000 it plans to spend to demolish the mall.
A third developer group, California-based Film Studio Group, backed out earlier this year because the firm felt the city wasn’t willing to provide enough public money.
Councilman James Mitchell, chairman of the committee considering the Eastland site, said he felt Monday’s meeting was an “information-providing” session for the community.
He said Hesse had invited all council members.
Mitchell said he went to hear feedback from District 5 residents. He added he was impressed with the proposal – and so was “97 percent” of the people in the audience.
“If they do 60 percent of what they showed in the video, it will be a tourist destination that we all can be proud of,” Mitchell said. “It will have the ability to create movies, to create jobs. It will have the ability to transform and increase the property value.
“It could be a win-win not only for east Charlotte, but the whole city.”
Still, Mitchell said he would reserve judgment until he hears a report from Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble at Thursday’s meeting.
“I am anxious to hear from city staff what they think about (Studio Charlotte’s) financials,” he said. “If city staff thinks they can make this (studio) happen, then I’m a strong yes.”
Lazes said he doesn’t think Hesse’s studio project is viable. He noted that his own studio, Silver Hammer Studios in Charlotte, has worked with national projects such as Showtime’s “Homeland” series.
Lazes said he doubt’s Hesse’s group can fulfill its vision of creating one of the largest movie studio centers outside of Los Angeles. He said if that were financially feasible, it would have already happened in Chicago or one of the other larger U.S. cities.
“But it wouldn’t be the first time I’d have been wrong,” he added. “If it is (viable) and someone can pull it off on that scale, hey, I’ll be a fan.”
Hesse said he has more than a dozen years of experience in the movie business, and his business partners at California-based PacificaVentures run some of the largest movie studios in the country.
“We might have had different information than what Rick was privy to,” he said, adding that his group has already spent nearly $1 million on the project.
“We would not be spending that kind of money if we didn’t think this was the right business model.”
He said a nonprofit associated with his production company did sponsor a meeting Monday in Grier Heights but only did so because the City Council has told both his group and Lazes’ group to build community support for their plans.
“We were by no means trying to make this a political issue,” he said. “We don’t want to stick something in their area of the city that they’re not 100 percent supportive of.”
During the latter days of the recent legislative session, officials with the motion picture industry urged lawmakers to extend tax incentives for filmmaking that expire at the end of 2014. They took no vote.
N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said she’s exploring other means to fund the incentives and not use general taxes.
Hesse said he plans to help lobby state officials to extend the incentives.
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