February 20, 2014

City worried about Eastland movie studio proposal

The city of Charlotte, concerned about the viability of a developer’s plan to remake the Eastland Mall site into movie studios, may consider other options in a month.

The city of Charlotte, concerned about the viability of a developer’s plan to remake the Eastland Mall site into movie studios, may consider other options in a month.

Brad Richardson, the city’s economic development director, said his staff has not received detailed financial numbers from the developer, Studio Charlotte Development.

An exclusive six-month negotiating window the city gave Studio Charlotte expires at the end of March.

“We have not been in frequent communication,” Richardson said.

Studio Charlotte made a presentation before the City Council’s economic development committee in November, and Richardson said the group has met with city staff only once since then, in January.

Richardson said his primary concern is getting what he calls an estimated “hard cost” for the project. That reflects expenses that would become part of the project’s taxable value, and not the developer’s costs for consultants and architects.

The city needs the estimated taxable value to calculate how much, if any, property tax rebate it might give the developer to help advance the project.

“I don’t know if we are on the same path,” Richardson said. “The City Council needs those hard costs so we can know what the ask is.”

In November, Bert Hesse of Studio Charlotte Development asked for the city to deed to him the 80 acres of Eastland land that the city bought in 2012 for $13.2 million. In addition, he asked for property tax rebates from the city and Mecklenburg County totaling $24.7 million.

His vision is to first build sound stages and studios, which would then spark new retail and residential development. In November, the project’s first phase was estimated to cost $89.7 million.

Hesse said Thursday the project is moving forward and on track.

“We’re very happy with where we are at,” said Hesse, a Charlotte resident and film executive.

He said the biggest concern isn’t about the project’s financing or determining its hard costs, but whether the N.C. General Assembly will extend a generous tax credit for the film and TV industry that is seen as key to the Eastland project’s success.

Hesse called the tax credits the “elephant in the room.” But he said he is confident legislators will support extending the tax credits this spring.

Hesse said his group is working to determine the project’s hard costs.

“It’s like trying to grab Jello,” Hesse said. “We’re in constant contact with the city on this process.”

While trying to secure financing, Hesse has tried to generate enthusiasm for the project, talking about how it can transform east Charlotte. In January, actress Angie Harmon, a Charlotte resident, lobbied City Council members to support the project.

“We had a dinner two weeks ago with 40 of the top TV producers (in the nation),” Hesse said. “They are excited about this project. They are saying these stages should have been built years ago.”

Hesse was asked Thursday about the city’s concerns about having a detailed financing plan and specific information about the project’s taxable value.

“We had heard some people in the city were confused because of the lack of information,” Hesse said. “Have they read our 38-page RFP response? It’s in strong detail.”

Richardson said he has read Hesse’s response to the city’s Request for Proposal, but it doesn’t include the amount of information the city needs.

Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, who chairs the City Council’s economic development committee, said he wants Hesse’s group to be “crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.”

If the city and Hesse’s group haven’t struck a deal by the end of the exclusive negotiating window in March, that doesn’t mean a deal is off. The city could continue talking to Studio Charlotte Development while seeking other developers.

“There is some pressure from the community to do something,” Barnes said about site.

Richardson said the city hasn’t lost any time yet because the mall is still being razed.

“But we are thinking about Plan B, post March 31st,” he said. “What is the best way to redevelop the site?”

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