Developers of an $85 million film-studio project in Delaware County officially broke ground Thursday, promising to draw big-time Hollywood producers and bring nearly 300 permanent jobs to the region during the first year.
"We will be an operating movie studio equivalent or superior to anything that's in Hollywood," said Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, a lawyer and lead developer partnering with Pacifica Ventures, a California development company. "There's no other like it anywhere in the world."
While Rotwitt enjoys the success of a closed deal Thursday in Chester Township, he is being investigated by the FBI for a failed development deal in Philadelphia.
Last month, the state courts killed a development plan for the city's Family Court building after The Inquirer revealed that Rotwitt was cashing in on both sides of the deal. Rotwitt stood to gain $3.9 million - his firm already has received about $1.3 million - from the courts for scouting locations and lobbying for state money. At the same time he would have collected $500,000 in a deal with a developer who has rights to the planned court site.
Rotwitt, 59, was fired from his Philadelphia law firm, Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P., after the state took over the project.
Asked about the Family Court matter Thursday, Rotwitt said, "It's a story for another day that will resolve very quickly and very favorably."
The funding for the studio project is largely private, with about $40 million coming from private lenders. The greatest financial support comes from US Bank, Rotwitt said.
Aramark, the food service company that will cater events held at the new studio space, kicked in $2 million. The rest of the financing was put together from private sources that Rotwitt did not specifically disclose.
Rotwitt will be reimbursed $10 million from the state when the project is complete, said Gary Tuma, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell.
The county, township, and the Chester Upland School District also offered the project a tax-increment financing program (TIF) that will allow Rotwitt to use future tax revenue to help finance the studio deal. Rotwitt estimates the TIF will cover $5 million to $10 million of the project.
Rendell did not attend the groundbreaking because he had other commitments in Harrisburg, Tuma said.
When asked if the governor thought giving Rotwitt's movie project $10 million was a good idea in light of the Family Court probe, Tuma said the money is not given without conditions.
"The state does not commit money for economic development without the developer meeting a set of stringent conditions indicating the viability of the project," he said. "And in this particular grant program, since it is a reimbursement, that provides additional protection for the commonwealth."
No members of the Delaware County Council attended the groundbreaking, but Chairman Jack Whelan said the board supported the project.
"Although there may be some concerns that the county has over recent developments, as long as he's going to engage in an activity that's going to benefit the residents of Delaware County, we're certainly going to support him," Whelan said.
State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) was on hand. He said he had no reservations in offering $10 million in taxpayer funds to the studio project.
"We're just going to focus on the jobs. This is completely different than that," he said of the Family Court project.
Although the state offers $45 million in tax credits to filmmakers who shoot in Pennsylvania, building studios has been difficult, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs, where film industry supporters say it may prove more valuable. A plan to build a movie studio in a former shopping center in Norristown was shelved in February, due to the tough economy.
The 33-acre Sun Center Studios project is expected to be fully complete next July, Rotwitt said.
Producers could begin working there as soon as November, when workers will have constructed two 20,000-square-foot sound stages (an element currently lacking in the state) and a 60,000- square-foot building.