9 Investigates: Key deadline weeks away for Eastland Mall project

by: Jim Bradley Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

City leaders are weeks away from a key deadline for the bid to build a movie studio where Eastland Mall once stood.

Backers are promising thousands of jobs with the project, but they want millions in land and tax incentives.

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Bradley spent weeks looking into the group behind the proposal.

He found a town nearly 800 miles away that has a warning about one of the Studio Charlotte partners.

One backhoe load at a time, Eastland Mall is becoming a memory. 

Developer Bert Hesse insists he has a viable plan to create new memories and new energy here.

“We will hopefully announce in the next 30 to 60 days, two major household names that will be what they call anchor tenants,” Hesse said.

Tenants of a $300 million development of stores, offices and homes, Hesse said will rise up alongside a new movie studio, Studio Charlotte, if he can get the city's blessing to build it.

City leaders, who've given Hesse until the end of March to prove his case, aren’t yet sold.

“You can present pictures and do a lot of talking, but behind that there has to be substance.  There have to be details.  You've got to know what you're getting,” said Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes on the Charlotte City Council.

Barnes, who chairs the city's Economic Development Committee, said Studio Charlotte has yet to provide enough specifics about exactly what would be built on the Eastland site or about the financing to pay for it.

Bradley asked Hesse if they have the money lined up.

“It’s being lined up,” Hesse said. “It’s getting lined up.”

Hesse points to his partnership with California-based Pacifica Ventures, saying its track record in building and operating sound stages gives Studio Charlotte credibility.

In Philadelphia and Albuquerque, N.M., Pacifica has studios where a number of movies, plus the hit cable series “Breaking Bad” were shot. 

But not all of Pacifica's ventures have been successful.  Back in 2010, Pacifica, with a different set of financial backers, held a groundbreaking on a snowy lot outside Hartford, Conn.

Four years later, nothing's happened.  No jobs, no studios, and among the locals and not much confidence in Pacifica's promises.

The only business Channel 9 found on the property was a food truck, where Curt Williams said he no longer believes a movie studio will ever join him. 

He's not the only one in the town of South Windsor who's grown skeptical. 

Former Mayor Cary Prague is still on the town's council and said he's tired of waiting for Connecticut Studios to deliver.  

Prague said he extended the deadline nine times and won’t do it again.

Even current Mayor Saud Anwar, who still hopes Pacifica will build a studio in his town, admits Charlotte leaders should be careful. 

“You go through an emotional rollercoaster. One day, it’s good news. The other day, it’s not as good news,” Anwar said.

Yet, back here in Charlotte, Hesse insisted to us that Pacifica's Connecticut Venture is a success.

“Well, it’s a success because they’re still pursuing it,” Hesse said.

How long Charlotte will continue to pursue Studio Charlotte is uncertain. 

The city has spent nearly $14 million buying and tearing down Eastland Mall.  Hesse is asking the city to sell it to him for $1.

“It’s too good of a deal,” Barnes said. “And people have to have some skin in the game.”

Barnes said time is running short for Studio Charlotte to bring money and specifics to the table and he’s in no mood to extend the city’s March deadline.

“We want to make sure that this studio can execute and they can deliver,” Barnes said. “And if they can’t, we need to know that. And we need to know that now.”

“We’re going to try to do everything we can to make sure that there’s a groundbreaking here and that movies are being made in Mecklenburg County on this lot,” Hesse said.

Channel 9 learned that because of the uncertainty still surrounding the Studio Charlotte bid, the city’s economic development team has already started thinking about “plan B.”

“It’s a publicly-owned asset that we need to begin to talk about what happens if the development agreement doesn’t come to fruition,” said Brad Richardson with the Charlotte economic development team.

For the city, the studio and east Charlotte, the clock is ticking.

Another question surrounding the Studio Charlotte bid is whether North Carolina will continue offering tax credits to the film industry.

The state’s 25-percent tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year. It’s unclear whether legislators will renew it.

Hesse told Eyewitness News that if those incentives end, it will be a deal breaker for the Eastland project.