A COUPLE of weeks ago, the Coastal Empire Fair went on as planned in its usual location near Feiler Park in West Savannah.
You’d be forgiven for not realizing the land on which the Fair operates now belongs to the City of Savannah, as part of a controversial $2.9 million purchase from the Exchange Club in August 2016.
Over a year later, the City continues to solicit neighborhood input and still has no definite plans for the site, one of the largest undeveloped tracts left in Chatham County.
One proposal, for a film soundstage, has been rejected outright — twice.
So far, that proposal is the only concrete idea put forth for the real estate, as City Council ponders its overall vision for the purchase.
Spearheaded by local state Rep. Craig Gordon, the soundstage proposal would have addressed an identified need in Savannah going back decades.
“Last year, the Savannah Film Alliance set a goal for 2017 to finally get a soundstage locally,” says Charles “Bo” Bowen, attorney for Gordon’s failed bid.
“We looked at all the different proposed plans which had the best chance of success. But the vast majority all made the same mistake.”
The way Bowen tells it, what Savannah needs is not an expensive “crystal palace,” in his words, but a soundstage designed to serve the needs of the actual film projects which would shoot here.
“We just don’t need a $100 million facility here, that’s ridiculous,” Bowen says. “Moving forward, Savannah will be home to those smaller $2-10 million movies, because the big blockbusters will film in Atlanta.”
A soundstage, simply put, is a place where a production company can prepare an indoor film set, with lighting and sound equipment, for repeated use.
“The whole point of a soundstage is it’s a controlled environment where a crew can come in, set everything up, lock it down, and leave it there ready to go for the next day,” explains David Harland Rousseau, a former president of Savannah Filmmakers and a former member of the Savannah Film Commission.
“It’s ideally a turn-key situation.”
Gordon’s proposal was for 13 acres of the parcel’s 67-acre total. According to Bowen, the combination of an existing large Quonset hut onsite and a well-equipped power grid made the site ideal.
“An engineer told us the structural components of the Quonset hut are three times stronger than they need to be,” Bowen says.
“The big expensive thing with a soundstage is the power grid. And the grid on this site is already set up to power the entire Coastal Empire Fair. Plus you’ve got an industrial-size kitchen there, already set up for catering,” he says.
The proposal was so attractive, Bowen says, that they actually had a client ready to start shooting as soon as ink was dry on the deal.
“We had a TV series ready to shoot 10 episodes here, at $6.5 million per episode,” Bowen says. “They were ready to come in March 2018 and rent the entire facility for a year.”
However, it wasn’t meant to be, as the City rejected Gordon’s bid after putting out a request for proposal for the front acreage of the site, facing Meding Street.
Gordon’s bid was the only one that came forward. Twice.
The first bid for the property was for $1,057,000. After the City rejected that bid as too low, both parties reappraised the acreage in question to resume negotiations.
When the City’s own appraisal came in at $855,000, Gordon’s group made a second bid at $980,000.
Last month, that bid was rejected as well, in a hurried vote at the end of a Council meeting, with no discussion.
Michelle Gavin, Public Information Administrator for the City of Savannah, says the City’s main concern isn’t about price, but about the overall plan for the site.
“The City rejected the proposal because it isn’t what City Council felt was a good fit for the area,” says Gavin. “The City has a vision for the entire property, not only for that one part of it.”
Gavin says the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it is sometimes presented, because not all the Fairgrounds parcel can even be built on at all.
Indeed, about a third of the 67 acres is either wetlands or landfill.
“The soundstage proposal came in for a piece of land that a structure can be built on,” says Gavin. “That would significantly decrease what could be done with the remaining area of the whole parcel.”
The City’s purchase of the land last year was openly predicated on the idea that it would be used for new affordable housing.
But that idea quickly dissipated as neighborhood opposition to the idea grew, based on concern that a new housing development would bring increased congestion and crime.
“The biggest things we are hearing from neighborhood residents are the need for more recreational facilities,” says Gavin. “Not just parks and playgrounds, but structured activity for youth in the area.”
While not directly involved in the debate, Rousseau muses that a movie soundstage might actually be the least disruptive thing that could go on the site.
“Movie crews don’t want congestion or noise at all,” says Rousseau. “They want things as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, so they can get their work done quickly and efficiently. The last thing they want is a lot of noise and confusion. In that regard, they have the same interests as members of the community.”
Bowen claims the soundstage would result in over 100 new local jobs each year, most of them technical in nature and many with union protections, with an average salary of about $60,000 a year and benefits.
Gavin says that while job creation is an important goal for City Council, she says “this is one of the last big tracts of land left in the City” and therefore it’s important that a lot of thought goes into whatever ends up going there.
Gavin says that while the soundstage idea isn’t completely off the table, the neighborhood’s and the City’s vision for the property more closely resembles athletic fields than show biz.
“We’ve seen plenty of concern from residents of that neighborhood that a soundstage might not be the only thing they’re wanting,” she says.