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Commissioners divided on movie-studio request

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

The much-debated Henry County movie-studio proposal is in intermission.

By a vote of 3-3, the Henry County Board of Commissioners has taken "no action" on a request by local developer and businessman, Billy Abbate, a managing partner of Big 5 Enterprises LLC, and Atlanta Film Studios. Abbate had wanted to use existing hangars at Tara Field, in Hampton, as movie-production facilities.

District II Commissioner Monroe Roark made a motion to approve Abbate's request, during Tuesday's commission meeting. Roark and Randy Stamey voted in favor of the Intergovernmental contract proposal, and Reid Bowman, Johnny Basler, and Warren Holder, opposed it.

The entities of the Intergovernmental contract would have been the board of commissioners, the Henry County Development Authority, Big 5 Enterprises LLC, and Atlanta Film Studios.

Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis cast her vote in favor of the request, making it a 3-3 tie vote.

Abbate first came before the commissioners on March 1, to introduce the movie-studio project, and ask for the county's support. He returned on Tuesday requesting approval of "credit enhancement" for his project. Abbate addressed the commission on the details of his proposal:

"To recap the benefits of the permanent presence of the film industry here in Henry County, approval of our request brings viable alternatives to increased taxes and service cutbacks," said Abbate. "Our project increases tax revenues. Our property remains a tax-producing parcel on Henry County's tax digest.

"The real estate tax increases can be as much as $3 million per year, from our project," he continued. "Sales tax increments of as much as $9 million per year from our project. Ad valorem tax increases of up to $550,000 a year. Our project is shovel-ready. That means that while there are others, who are ready to compete against us, we can still be first to market.

"Most important are job creations," he said. "Jobs created, up to 300 new construction jobs immediately. Up to 60 new aviation-industry jobs. Up to 2,200 new direct movie-industry jobs. Up to 1,600 new indirect movie-industry jobs.

"Significant increases in auxiliary and tourism jobs," he added. "Increases in hotel and motel taxes. Increases in requests for local housing, which would decrease the amount of surplus inventory for the citizens of Henry County ... Increases in local professional services, and increases in local retail and commercial services."

With the tie vote, however, the project is, at least temporarily, on hold. Attempts to reach Abbate for comment after the vote were unsuccessful.

It is unclear whether he will present his request to the commission again. "I'm not sure if this will come back to the board -- or not," said Mathis.

She said the movie facilities held promise for the county's future. "This development has the potential to jump-start our economy by attracting new businesses that will spring up in the area of the studio, through employment opportunities to our residents, and in the way of new tax revenues the county will receive through direct spending of multi-million-dollar film budgets in our county for products and services.

"Losing it simply means we will continue in the slow economic recovery pattern we have seen over the past two months, and possibly face an even tighter budget next year as commercial property values will most likely decline next year," she said.

District IV Commissioner Reid Bowman, who remained unconvinced about the project, said Wednesday that he did not receive all of the financial information from Abbate he requested. Bowman said he received some documents shortly before the start of the commission meeting, leaving him little time to read them.

Bowman also said that, after reading a resolution Abbate presented to him and the other commissioners Tuesday night, some of the information on the amount of millage the county would pledge conflicted with what commissioners were told earlier.

"When I read that, I said, 'Wait a minute, they're wanting us to sign this resolution that says they can get up to one mill, but if it takes more, there's certain things that they can do, and they can actually get more than one mill,'" Bowman said. "The bottom line is, this resolution states that they can get up to one mill. We've talked about 0.4 of a mill."

There was also nothing in writing in the resolution given to the commissioners pertaining to the "personal guarantees" Abbate said the project's partners would put up, according to Bowman.

In contrast to Bowman, District III Commissioner Stamey, a studio-proposal supporter, said Wednesday that Abbate did everything according to the county's wishes. "In the beginning, we had very little information, but through the process, we all gained lots of knowledge about the industry, and he did everything we asked him to," said Stamey.

The development would benefit the county, Stamey continued. "I believe in the project," he said. "At the end of the day, I was hoping to create several thousand jobs for Henry Countians. That was my motive, and the reason I supported it, and still support it."

District II Commissioner Roark said he had "met with the principals involved with this project, and am encouraged at the commitment they have made to invest in our community, and specifically, my district.

"I have also talked to my predecessor, who was elected by the voters of my district and who spent a great deal of time and effort on this project," Roark said. "There has been a great deal of feedback from citizens in District II, and it has been overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. Given all of these factors, it would be irresponsible of me to oppose this project."

Additionally, the resolution for the project had a line item which specified that the City of Hampton would pledge three mills toward the project, according to Bowman. Hampton pulled out of that agreement, said Bowman, but the item had not been stricken from the document.

Hampton City Manager Andy Pippin said the city chose to opt out because of concerns that taxpayers would be double-billed. "Hampton was originally asked to pledge three mills to this as another 'road block' to prevent the overall failure of the project," said Pippin. "Hampton does not have a city tax, so there aren't three mills to pledge. When told that we could legally institute an up-to-three-mills tax on our citizens, we simply could not do so, as that would mean that our citizens would be double-taxed, once by the city and once by the county, in the event the project failed.

"We figured out what three mills of our tax digest would be worth on an annual basis, and we considered making a one-time pledge of that amount to be matched by Big 5 Enterprises, putting into place another year's worth of reserves to postpone the total failure of the project," added Pippin. "Upon further research, we were advised by our legal counsel that the city could not do so. So, while Hampton supports the project and overall goals of Big 5 Enterprises, we were not able to monetarily assist."

District V Commissioner Johnny Basler, and District I Commissioner Warren Holder could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.