Eastland Mall movie studio developers woo locals at glitzy reception

efrazier@charlotteobserver.comNovember 6, 2013 

The developers hoping to turn the Eastland Mall property into a massive movie studio complex wooed prospective investors, political leaders and local film industry insiders at a glitzy reception uptown Wednesday evening.

The event came as Charlotte entrepreneur Bert Hesse and his Studio Charlotte development group hope to persuade the city’s economic development staff to sign off on their $250 million plan to remake the old mall, which is being torn down.

The City Council in late August gave the staff a six-month window to vet the proposal and recommend whether the city should enter a formal development contract with Studio Charlotte.

The reception, held in a conference room at insurance firm Synergy Coverage Solutions’ offices on South Tryon Street, brought politicians, potential investors and others face to face with members of Hesse’s high-profile Studio Charlotte board.

Among the board members: former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, former Priceline.com CEO Jeff Hoffman, broadcasting mogul Cathy Hughes of the Radio One and TV One networks, and Pauletta Washington, actor Denzel Washington’s North Carolina-raised wife.

“It’s going to take some big people to pull this off,” Hesse said. “This is a huge project.”

Because the negotiations between Studio Charlotte and the city staff aren’t public, it’s hard to tell how much, if any, public dollars the developers are seeking. Hesse said both sides are “testing the waters” on what final deal terms might look like.

Asked whether he wants public money or the donation of the 80-acre Eastland site, Hesse replied: “We’re exploring all the options. It’s up to the city to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ But we’re very comfortable now with what the (city’s) attitude is, that we can go to the private sector and say, ‘The city of Charlotte wants the film industry here and they want this project on the eastside.’”

Hesse said his group has had two meetings with the city’s economic development team.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “They are obviously looking after the taxpayers’ money, as they should, but they are trying to make this deal happen.”

Studio Charlotte plans to partner with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Pacifica Ventures, the studio-building firm that developed similar projects in other parts of the country, to create a complex they say will transform the struggling east side and bring much-needed jobs.

The plan includes a 30-acre movie studio with eight sound stages and production offices. The rest of the site would include retail and office space, a hotel, a film school, and a movie studio tour/events center.

Hesse and Dana Arnold, CEO of Pacifica Ventures, said they feel good about how private investors are responding but declined to specify what commitments they’ve received.

City Council member John Autry, who represents the east side and has expressed support for the project, attended the reception.

Asked how the negotiations are going, he replied: “They’re encouraging. They’re productive, but not final.”

Lewis, the former Bank of America CEO, told reporters that he joined the board because he and his wife are longtime friends with Barbara McKay, a former local TV news personality who is a senior vice president with Studio Charlotte. Lewis said he doesn’t have an equity stake in the project.

“To me, this is not about the profit aspect,” he said. “I really like the impact this will have on the Charlotte community and the state.”

Hoffman, the former Priceline.com CEO, said he has produced films, and he has been approached about movie studio projects elsewhere. But he said he has been impressed by the local support shown for Studio Charlotte.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” he said. “It’s an everybody wins opportunity.”

If the star power impressed attendees, it was hard to tell from state Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Matthews. He called himself a longtime acquaintance of Hesse’s, but he said he preferred not to comment on the project or whether the state should continue providing the film industry tax incentives that draw movie productions to North Carolina.

McKay said the group is so encouraged by the progress of its Charlotte project that it is changing its name to Studio South and pursuing additional movie studio projects in Atlanta and Austin, Texas.

Built in 1975, Eastland Mall was once east Charlotte’s commercial hub.

But it began to lose customers and started a slow decline until the mall closed in 2010. The city bought the shuttered structure last year for $13.2 million and is having it torn down to make way for redevelopment.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter

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