Miami-Dade commissioners approved a $10 million subsidy for a developer to build what was described as one of the largest movie studios outside of California, the second government-backed production facility in the Miami area.
With only one dissenting vote, commissioners endorsed Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recommendation to turn over tax dollars and county land near Miami Gardens for the planned Miami Ocean Studios, a sprawling, $265 million production campus with a hotel, sound stages and a special tank for filming water scenes so massive it could have accommodated James Cameron’s sinking of the Titanic.
“We are not building something to stand out in Florida. We’re not even building something that is supposed to look good on the East Coast,” said Rodolfo Paiz, the heir to a Guatemalan supermarket fortune who is backing the project, his first venture in the production industry. “Outside of Hollywood, we’re building one of a handful of the best facilities on planet Earth.”
Commissioners hailed the effort as a way to inject significant construction dollars into the county, bring a much-needed hotel to the Miami Gardens area and boost Miami-Dade’s on-again-off-again relationship with large Hollywood productions. Miami-Dade would issue the money as a rebate once the project is up and running, which Gimenez said minimized the risk to the public. The subsidy comes from property taxes, but Paiz can only use it for infrastructure improvements that would stay with the county land should his project fail.
“The goal is to diversify the economy,” Gimenez said. “It’s really a great project in an area that could use the help.”
Wednesday’s decision moves Miami-Dade closer to emptying a $75 million economic-development fund that sat untapped for a decade before Gimenez moved to allocate the money last summer. The controversial program allows Miami-Dade to borrow money to help for-profit ventures pay for roads, sewage hook-ups and other development needs, and then pay back the money using a special property tax that funds voter-approved debt.
Miami-Dade included the economic-development program in a 2004 ballot initiative that approved $2.9 billion worth of projects. All but $15 million has been allocated since commissioners approved their first earmarks on Nov. 5, which reserved $10 million for a commercial complex and private-jet terminal at the Opa-locka Airport and $14 million for a theme park a developer wants to build next to Zoo Miami. The allocation that drew the most controversy was the commission’s later decision to give $9 million to SkyRise Miami, the observation tower that won a Miami referendum while promising not to use city funds in the project.
Only County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata voted against the Ocean Studios allocation Wednesday.
The new studio would be the second government-backed film facility in Miami-Dade. In 2013, the city of Miami approved a $10 million grant and city land for a new studio in the Omni area, which began construction in December.
For Ocean Studios, the plan is to create a cutting-edge production facility that will give studios the option of using South Florida’s lush backdrops for exterior shots as well as film their interior shots in the vast sound stages that the project would provide. The effort comes as Florida’s production industry is suffering from the demise of state production subsidies that are considered key to recruiting major shows and movies.
Florida’s “film and industry employment is declining in comparison to other states,” according to a January report by the Florida Legislature evaluating state incentive programs. Miami-Dade is part of a lobbying effort to bring back the state incentives, which Ocean Studios executives have described as important but not essential for the project.
“It’s Miami. There is a true draw for productions to come here,” said Telemundo’s James Stamatis, the industry veteran who Paiz hired as a consultant to steer the Ocean Studios venture. He said the studio’s profit projections assume no state incentives would be available.
Key to the venture, Stamatis said, will be Ocean Studios’ massive water tank designed to accommodate major aquatic scenes — be it a ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean or an underwater action sequence in a Jaws sequel. The county land at 20000 NW 47th Ave. currently houses three non-profits, including one dedicated to housing unaccompanied minors caught up in the immigration system. Ocean Studios’ deal with Miami-Dade requires the company to find alternative facilities for the charities, either on the property or elsewhere.
County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes Miami Gardens, sponsored the funding and lease proposals for Ocean Studios.
“This is going to be a true difference for Miami-Dade County,” she said. “This is one of those projects we’ve been waiting for for a number of years.”