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County mulls movie studio construction in Hampton

By Valerie Baldowski

If given the financing nod by county commissioners, the overall movie studio/production operation will encompass six hangars and 97 acres at the Hampton air field, and generate jobs, according to backers of the plan.

"I think it could conceivably be the biggest economic windfall that Henry County has ever seen," said William Abbate, the managing partner for the groups seeking to build the facility: Stockbridge-based Big 5 Enterprises LLC, and Atlanta Film Studios.

"We could create almost 10,000 jobs, and inject hundreds of millions of dollars in the local economy, this year alone," Abbate said, after plans for the studio were outlined Monday, during a workshop session of the Henry County Commission.

"They [movie company officials] were looking for infrastructure in Georgia, and that's very hard to come by," Abbate said. The first production is scheduled to be shot using an existing hangar later this month, he said. "Within the next couple of weeks, they [studio officials] will be doing pre-production site visits."

Officials pushing the project are expressing optimism after winning the backing of the Henry County Development Authority regarding the financing. It will cost $38 million to build phase 1 of the project.

Atlanta Film Studios will pay the initial startup costs, Abbate told commissioners. He said the studio also will pay the debt on the bonds. However, he asked the commissioners to approve the tax-credit financing of the planned project.

In February, the authority was asked to "induce" the project, which is the legal step for the issuance of the revenue bonds to finance the construction, said Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority. "What that does is, it starts the clock and allows them [the studio] to go out and secure financing and underwriting," White added.

"The project has pretty significant implications, for not only Henry County, but the region," said White. "We're very excited about it. We see this as having a very positive impact on Henry County."

The Henry County Development Authority authorized a maximum amount up to $42 million in taxable Industrial Development Revenue bonds. White, Abbate, and others in the business community, now await word from county commissioners. No commission vote has been taken, and commissioners have given no indication when they will act on the request.

"I think this is a great project, something to stimulate the economy," said Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis. However, she added that there is no timeline for an official vote on the request for the county to back the issuance of the bonds by the development authority.

"If what they have to tell us is true and accurate, I support it," said Rick Jeffares, District II county commissioner. He represents the area where the facility is scheduled to be constructed. "If they come, then, there will be other businesses that come. It's like a domino effect," he added.

The first movie the company plans to produce is expected to cost $70 million to make; 50 percent to 70 percent of that is expected to be spent in the local economy, according to Abbate.

"If the board of commissioners decides to approve the tax-credit incentives, then it should spark new industry for Henry County," said Andy Welch, chairman of the board of directors for the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

Approximately 5,000 new, temporary jobs, with an average annual salary of $50,000, are projected to be created when the movie studio begins operations, Welch said. "They would be quality-paying jobs, and would put people back to work locally," the business leader continued. Other benefits would come from the additional sales revenues and ad valorem tax revenues generated for Henry, he added.

The final decision as to whether the studio is in the best interests of the community will rest with the Henry County Commission, said Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin. "It would give Henry County the opportunity to shape its future," said Pippin. "There are no more trucks of money coming from Washington, or Atlanta, to any community, and now, it's up to communities to do for themselves. This project could significantly impact [our] economic well-being for years to come."

Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough), told the commissioners he cautiously approves of the deal.

"I conceptually agree with the program," said Davis. "We have a lot of opportunities here. I'm not a film industry expert, but if it would create jobs in Henry County, I'd find it hard not to take advantage of that opportunity."

Georgia offers a 30 percent tax incentive for 24 months to production companies, and film studios, that choose to film in a community, Davis said.

Grant Wainscott, Clayton County director of economic development, said the movie studio will impact Clayton as well. "We've seen a dramatic increase in the interest of the film and entertainment community to shoot projects in Clayton County," he said. He was unable to say how much revenue could be generated in Clayton County.

"It depends upon what kind of productions are filmed here," he said. "For location shots, it's virtually impossible to estimate what economic impact that will have."

In November, Wainscott said his office opened a Film and Entertainment Office inside the Clayton County Department of Economic Development, in response to the interest production companies are showing.

Abbate said the studio chose Tara Field to build because of the availability of airplane hangars on site. "Primarily, it's because we can build infrastructure that serves a dual purpose," he said. "Going out and building stage-specific construction is very expensive, and it's very difficult to attract the industry here in the first place."

The studio will ultimately use six hangars totaling 85,000 square feet of existing space, said Abbate. Three of them will be used for production, and the other three will be used to provide shop space and to build props.