Friday, February 5, 2010

Norristown movie studio shelved

"Perhaps those visions of Hollywood glitz for humble Norristown were unduly rosy, like most showbiz dreams.

For now, the hyped plan to revive the hard-bitten Montgomery County seat with one of the largest movie studios on the East Coast is off the table, replaced by the more pragmatic construction of office space for a janitorial concern and a Pathmark.

The latter, aimed at completion early next year, would be the municipality's first new full-service supermarket in a generation.

It won't be the glamorous, California-esque 100,000 square feet of studio space talked up in 2007 as a magnet for feature films and even celebrity gawking.

Developer Charles Gallub said yesterday that the poor economy and the state government's budget-crunching trim of the film tax credit precluded, for the moment, building a movie studio in a faded shopping center on Norristown's eastern edge.

"We absolutely like the movie studio concept," Gallub said, "but it has to be a bankable and financially viable concept."

Instead, the $78 million construction of the Studio Centre complex will focus on bringing in a Pathmark and expanding the headquarters of USM, formerly US Maintenance, into space that was a Sears in yesteryear. Site improvements are to include environmentally friendly roofs and solar panels.

Gallub said he had not quite given up on someday building a studio in the 35,000-square-foot office building that USM is leaving. But even that is "at least one Pennsylvania state budget cycle away," he said.

Film production companies, he said, were skittish after the state cut the film tax credit's budget in this fiscal year from $75 million to $42 million - with the hope of partially restoring it, to $60 million, in the next.

Even as a supermarket and office space, the project is in line for sizable government help.

County commissioners yesterday unanimously approved signing on to Gallub's $10 million loan application with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in an arrangement that would make the county the loan's guarantor.

A similar arrangement to have Norristown join with the developer in applying for a separate $5 million HUD loan is scheduled to go before the Norristown Council on Feb. 16.

A third pot of government money, though, is in limbo.

In 2008, the state government awarded a $10 million redevelopment subsidy to Gallub's studio project - a sum that would be used to reimburse construction expenses. Technically, the grant could pay for Studio Centre construction that did not involve a studio, provided Gov. Rendell gives permission. Whether he would is unclear.

"In approving that amount, it was clearly with the idea of the movie studio in mind," Rendell press secretary Gary Tuma said yesterday. "So if they have other plans, they would really need to come back to us and explain what they really want to do in detail. . . . Then we would have to evaluate whether we think it's worthwhile."

Gallub said he expected the project, which has already created 100 jobs with the expansion of USM's offices, to keep its $10 million grant.

Construction of the Pathmark is to begin in late spring or early summer, and the store should open within a year of that, he said."

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