Catawba Indians considering $350 million movie studio project

This is a rendering of what the gate leading to the planned movie studio complex at the Catawba Indian Reservation in York County.
This is a rendering of what the gate leading to the planned movie studio complex at the Catawba Indian Reservation in York County. Catawbastudio.com

The Catawba Indian Reservation could be home to one of the largest movie studios east of Los Angeles if tribal leaders and a film producer reach an agreement.

The Catawba and Studio South of Charlotte are considering a $350 million investment that would bring sound stages, a hotel, a new Catawba Cultural Center, a magnet school for film and music, plus retail and office space on up to 124 acres of tribal land.

Specific job creation numbers haven’t been announced but tribal and studio officials estimate it to be in the hundreds, if not thousands.

“We are doing our due diligence,” said Catawba Chief Bill Harris. “Is this good for the tribe, good for York County?”

If the project does happen, it could be a game changer for the tribe, Harris said, giving it a steady income and removing its reliance on grant funding. The project is expected to reduce tribal unemployment which has historically been higher than region’s average.

Bert Hesse of Studio South said the project is the “opportunity for the Catawba to make their mark.” He said Studio South’s partnering with the Catawbas is a natural fit because the tribe is among “the original story tellers.”

The Catawba Indians, Hesse added, are the original “hippies” because of their respect for the land.

Studio South has promised to “respect” the tribal land proposed for development. About 84 acres of the 124-acre site would be developed and that tract “can shrink even more,” Hesse said.

Hesse is selling the project to leaders outside of the tribe. On Tuesday, he met with the York County Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee about the possibility of a $1 million grant to help fund pre-development work. Hesse and his investors also have met with the governor’s office, the S.C. Department of Commerce and the S.C. Film Commission.

Hesse said the reaction in Rock Hill and South Carolina has been entirely different from when he pitched a similar idea to the Charlotte City Council in 2013. He proposed a $125 million movie studio project at the then standing, but vacant, Eastland Mall. Hesse said he invested $1 million and two years into the project before the Charlotte City Council ended discussions.

Studio South’s partners in the Catawba project include Pacifica Ventures which has film studios in Albuquerque, N.M., and Phildelphia, Lowe’s Home Improvements which provides materials needed for sound stage construction, and Leidos Engineering of Reston, Va., which provided preliminary design work and site layout for the Charlotte project.

Pacifica Ventures’ clients include the six major filmmakers: Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Warner Brother and Universal.

In looking for another site, Hesse said he wanted to be close to an international airport because of the number of foreign visitors the studio could attract. He estimates the number of visitors touring the studio could top 350,000 annually.

Hesse also wanted a site with a variety of “local amenities” as crews for major movies typically spend as much as six months at production studios.

Involving the Catawba opened up Native American financing options previously unavailable to Studio South.

Harris said the tribe is also seeking other Native American involvement. He said the Catawba has received interest from several tribes and that representatives of the Seneca tribe of western New York recently visited to evaluate the project.

“This is a project about Native Americans on Native American land,” Harris said.

Hesse said if everything falls into place, construction of the $35 million phase one, which includes three sound stages and a tour-event center with an IMAX movie theater, could start in the beginning of 2016 and take a year to complete. The entire $350 million project could take up to 10 years to complete, Hesse said.

The movie studio project is unrelated to the tribe’s efforts to build a $600 million casino-hotel complex in Kings Mountain, N.C. The Gaston County site is part of the tribe’s ancestral land. The tribe is awaiting action from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe also has tried to build a casino-hotel complex on its York County reservation. Plans for that project ended when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that tribe can not offer video poker on its reservation.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw