Over the past 30 years, Bob Shelley has heard more than his share of aborted plans to redevelop the historic Lakewood Fairgrounds into something grand.
Among them: a new home for Zoo Atlanta, a charter school and even a mini-city along the lines of Atlantic Station. Drive by the familiar buildings on a hilltop overlooking the adjacent amphitheater and expansive parking lot, however, and you'll see that none have come to fruition.
"When you hear that over and over and over, you say you'll believe it when you see it," says Shelley, who maintains a prop-filled special effects studio inside one of Lakewood's 94-year-old exhibit halls. A veteran of Georgia film productions, his office walls are adorned with autographed photos of movie stars.
But now Shelley is a believer in the latest proposal for 30 of the expansive property's 117 acres, including the familiar Spanish Mission Revival-style exhibit halls that have fallen into disrepair.
Last week, the city announced it had edged out other cities and negotiated a 50-year lease with EUE/Screen Gems, a New York company that operates state-of-the-art soundstages and production facilities, that would transform the dilapidated area into a multimillion-dollar backlot of Hollywood proportions.
City officials are giddy at the thought of 1,000 new jobs during one of the country's deepest recessions and filling the property, which it's struggled to do for years. Lakewood Heights residents and businesses are aglow at the thought of a round-the-clock, year-round industry that would bring work, investment and new residents to the area. And film industry insiders say it's the final piece in Georgia's puzzle that will bring millions in investment and add prestige to the city's growing reputation as a go-to spot to make movies.
According to the proposed agreement, the company initially would pay the city $250,000 a year to lease the property, gradually topping out at $600,000 annually in 2020. The historic buildings – one of which company officials say is production-ready – would remain. And don't fret, music fans, the amphitheater, which is operated by Live Nation, isn't part of the deal and won't be affected.
The most exciting part of the agreement for film industry workers is Screen Gems' planned $5 million state-of-the-art soundstage that could establish Atlanta as a movie-making hub. Should the City Council approve the deal as expected this week, crews could begin filming projects this summer.
All this is good news for a property that's been searching for a purpose. The former home of the Southeast Fair was originally developed in 1870 as Atlanta's first waterworks before it served as a summer resort for Georgia's vacationers. Eager to put the Peach State on the map for something other than cotton, business and agricultural leaders later decided it'd be a suitable space to showcase the state's livestock. A roundtable of architects selected William J. Sayward's vision of ornate exhibit halls overlooking the lake. Sayward would later help design several other familiar buildings, including Agnes Scott College's Buttrick Hall and the Piedmont Park clubhouse, now known as Park Tavern.
In the 1940s and '50s, the fairgrounds saw its heyday as a Coney Island-style amusement park that, in the South, was considered second only to Dallas'. A dirt track that once circled the 15-acre lake hosted horse races and was where stock car legend Richard Petty won his first professional race. But by the late '70s, the rides had been dismantled, the races were over and Lakewood was closed up.
In 1984, movie producer Ed Spivia – who'd served as the state's film commissioner during the glory days, when Georgia was the site for such Burt Reynolds films as Smokey and the Bandit and Sharky's Machine – bought the lease on the fairgrounds with hopes of turning it into a movie studio and theme park. When those plans fell through, Spivia rebounded by subleasing the amphitheater property and launching the popular Lakewood Antiques Fair.
In 2005, near the height of the real estate frenzy, the City Council spent $4 million to buy out the remaining 29 years on Spivia's lease, even though it had no concrete offers for the property. When the bubble burst, it looked as if the city would be left holding the bag.
But with the Screen Gems offer, it seems that Spivia's original concept will finally be realized – and he, for one, is delighted.
"You can't find a better place than the Lakewood Fairgrounds," Spivia says.
According to Michael Akins of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the potential move couldn’t come at a better time for Georgia’s film and TV industry and the estimated 25,000 residents it employs. With Tyler Perry’s $30 million studio in southwest Atlanta churning out as many as four movies a year; Henry County officials voting this week to help a private developer convert hangers at Tara Field into soundstages; and camera crews converging on downtown Atlanta for film shoots rather than for “Real Housewives” fluff, the city’s film industry appears firmly established.
What’s more, Screen Gems execs say they selected Atlanta not only for its proximity to the airport and urban setting, but because national entertainment companies have said they wanted a dedicated place in the city to shoot their projects.
“We’re in the top five markets in the country,” says Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Deputy Commissioner Bill Thompson. “And we’re certainly No. 1 in the Southeast.”
One of the reasons is the state’s generous tax breaks. After watching Canada and such states as New Mexico and Louisiana lure productions with incentives, several Peach State entertainment associations in 2005 persuaded the state to enact its own package to woo the industry. In order to compete with other states’ heightened incentives, a more enticing package was passed in 2008.
Last year, movie and television production investment in Georgia totaled $770 million — a tenfold increase in six years. Nearly $500 million of that increase occurred after the tax incentives went into effect. More than 50 feature films — including The Blind Side and Zombieland — and hundreds of television shows have been filmed in Georgia in the last two years, state officials say. Akins says IATSE’s membership has grown from approximately 320 in 2004 to more than 800 this year.
While Akins and Shelley say other states might offer more in tax incentives, they lack Georgia’s skilled work force and access to cameras, lighting and other equipment that film shoots require when they come to town. All that was missing, industry vets say, was a production facility of the scale that Screen Gems is planning.
“What makes Atlanta a filmmaking hub is that all the pieces are coming together at the same location,” Akins says. “The industry, the incentives, the crew base, equipment houses — the infrastructure. And that studio is the last piece that’s put into place.”
Seventy rounds fired? I'm surprised that Ghetto Gobins can even perform a magazine change.
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