Studio proposal delights officials
Local developer plans film complex
A proposal for a Hollywood-style movie studio at the Devens complex is wowing state and local officials eager to bring new jobs to the former military base in the wake of the
The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which owns the old base, is in talks to sell a prime tract of land - and provide millions of tax incentives - to a local developer with plans for setting up a studio.
And the $104 million proposal, with the potential to turn Devens into the headquarters of the Massachusetts film industry, has won an early endorsement from officials in the communities that share the former Army property.
Ayer Selectman James Fay said he is encouraged by the proposed studio project, which would provide facilities for the growing number of Hollywood productions shooting in Massachusetts.
Fay said he is cautious about the use of tax incentives to lure companies after the Evergreen debacle, in which the Marlborough-based solar-panel manufacturer used the breaks to build a factory at Devens, only to shut it down this winter, taking with it more than 800 jobs. However, he also said the $5 million sum is relatively modest compared with the $58 million package doled out to the now-struggling Evergreen.
“I have said all along Devens should focus on manufacturing,’’ Fay said, adding the studio complex, in his view, would be “manufacturing films.’’
MJM Development LLC, which is based in Andover, hopes to win approval from MassDevelopment by the end of the year to begin construction on the first phase of a 600,000-square-foot studio complex.
The project is slated to take shape on vacant land on Jackson Road, across from the
The developer plans to build the project over 10 years, with an initial, $30 million phase to feature four 18,000-square-foot sound stages that would be suitable for rental to everything from big-budget movie productions to commercials. The complex would have a permanent staff of around 40, with hundreds of other positions working out of the studios at any one time, based on the various movies, TV shows, and other productions being filmed there, according to MJM.
The developer is also exploring the potential for converting what was once officer housing at nearby Sherman Square into dorms for a film school, though there are no pending plans to buy the site, said Michael Meyers, MJM’s managing partner.
“It makes a very good opportunity for the region,’’ Fay said. “It’s not on the scale of what Evergreen could have been, but at least it will be a success.’’
Along with Fay, others are also throwing their support behind the studio proposal.
Tom Kinch, a member of the Devens Citizens Advisory Committee, gave the idea a thumbs up.
“What this area needs are some jobs that absorb the creativity that New England has, especially Boston,’’ Kinch said.
Ronald Ricci, a Harvard selectman, quipped that the now-shuttered Evergreen plant itself might make the perfect Hollywood studio set.
“If it brings in jobs and new revenue, I guess that would be a good thing,’’ Ricci said. “It would be a lot better than that Evergreen Solar business.’’
Meanwhile, officials at MassDevelopment contend the proposal will avoid some of the pitfalls that have dogged other attempts to build large studio projects in Massachusetts.
A top former studio executive tied up hundreds of acres in Plymouth with plans for a giant “Hollywood East’’ studio complex, but that project collapsed after revelations that the development company lacked financial backing.
Other studio proposals have also been floated for the former naval air station in South Weymouth and on a site in South Boston.
But unlike past proposals, MJM does not have to obtain outside financing for the project, with enough equity of its own to build it, said Richard Henderson, executive vice president for real estate at MassDevelopment.
The project is also designed to start small and ramp up as demand increases, he noted.
“The project has a lot to recommend it, not the least of which is that they have their financing in place, which is very important,’’ Henderson said. “Others have found it very difficult to find financing for studios.’’
MJM’s Meyers also noted that past studio proposals were driven by former Hollywood executives with little or no experience pulling off large-scale real estate projects.
By contrast, Meyers said he has extensive experience building hotels and other big projects for a pair of hotel companies, and, before that, for
For expertise related to the studio business and design, MJM is working with consultants in the field, he said.
“Unlike those other projects, which were Hollywood producer driven, ours is driven by a group of experienced real estate developers who know Massachusetts,’’ Meyers said.
While supportive of efforts to bring jobs and development to Devens, state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, argued the tax incentives, especially in light of the Evergreen debacle, need to be thoroughly scrutinized.
A top concern is ensuring there are adequate claw-back provisions that would enable MassDevelopment to get back any tax incentive should the project fail.
“I am looking at those tax incentives,’’ Eldridge said. “I want to make sure it is a good deal for the taxpayers that is going to create well paying jobs.’’