Miami-Dade County

Miami redevelopment agency talks of selling brand new Viacom studio

The Omni Community Redevelopment Agency may try to sell the production studio on Northwest 14th Street in order to fund other projects in the area.
The Omni Community Redevelopment Agency may try to sell the production studio on Northwest 14th Street in order to fund other projects in the area. DAVID SMILEY Miami Herald

It wasn’t so long ago that a throng of politicians, businessmen and film executives crowded into the cavernous interior of a new $15 million complex to crow about an important partnership destined to keep a major production studio in Miami for the foreseeable future.

Predictions surrounding the unveiling of the publicly owned Florida Film and Television Center included the creation of thousands of jobs and the possibility of Miami becoming “the Hollywood of the south.” Today, though the expiration of a state film subsidy has undercut the most grandiose projections, the 88,000-square-foot studio remains an active home for Viacom, owner of the Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central brands.

But not even two years into a 10-year lease with EUE Screen Gems to run the facility, Miami’s Omni Community Redevelopment Agency is now talking about getting out of the agreement — and out of the film industry altogether. On Wednesday, Miami commissioners, who sit as the agency’s board, will discuss whether they want to unload the property after investing roughly $15 million in the building and another $3 million in the land.

“I want to open a conversation with the other commissioners to see if the film studio, now that it’s built and done, if it’s fulfilling the mission” of the redevelopment agency, said Omni Chairman Ken Russell, who was elected and assumed the post shortly after the facility opened. “We want to put all options on the table to see what’s going to be best for the community.”

Based on the current de-allocation of funds to the Film and Entertainment industry by the State of Florida, the OMNI CRA would like to analyze the best use of the property

Proposal before Miami commissioners Wednesday

Built just east of the FEC railway during the tenure of Russell’s predecessor, former Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, the complex was leased to EUE Screen Gems for $100,000 a year plus a percentage of income off its Viacom lease. The money, which executive director Jason Walker says comes out to about a quarter-million dollars annually, is a crucial income stream for an agency that has allocated much of its regular property tax income to operating subsidies for the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, PortMiami Tunnel debt and Museum Park improvements.

But the agency now has different goals, such as spreading affordable and workforce housing projects and small business grants throughout a district marked by swaths of undeveloped blocks and empty storefronts east of the tracks and low-rise apartments to the west in Overtown. Walker is pushing for the construction of dozens of affordable housing units, a joint redevelopment effort with the Miami-Dade School Board for the district’s Omni real estate, and the $5.5 million purchase of the historic Citizen Bank building shell at North Miami Avenue and 14th Street, an item also on Wednesday’s agenda.

There’s also discussion about potentially expanding the agency’s boundaries to include the West Grove.

In order to fund some of those efforts, Walker says the agency needs new money. Bank United issued a letter of interest last month for a loan of up to $25 million, but Walker says a cash infusion — say, by selling a film studio he says is appraised in the neighborhood of $20 million — would go a long way.

If we’re serious about affordable housing, how do we raise the money to get it done?

Jason Walker, Omni Community Redevelopment Agency executive director

“If we’re serious about affordable housing, how do we raise the money to get it done?” Walker asked.

Whether Miami’s other four commissioners are on-board with selling the film studio remains a question, much like the future of the content studio. A representative from EUE, which has invested money in the complex and has the right of first refusal under its lease should the redevelopment agency move to sell the complex, declined to comment.

Standing across 14th street from the Viacom studio Tuesday at his Ice Palace studios, Eugene Rodriguez, a long-time Omni property owner and player in Miami’s production industry, had mixed feelings. He’s excited about the redevelopment agency’s sudden activity in the area — “For the first time the CRA is going to spend money here,” he says — but isn’t sold on the idea of selling the production studio.

“I think you should hold onto it a little longer,” Rodriguez tells Walker, later adding that film “is part of the original fabric of this neighborhood.”

But Rodriguez, who owns the Citizen Bank building, sees the first promising steps in an effort to redesign and reactivate the area. He’s working with the agency to come up with a master plan to turn the depressed area around 14th Street and North Miami Avenue into a bustling pocket of shops, eateries and publicly accessible studios. Key to that effort, he says, is bringing the bank building back to life, possibly as a museum or cultural institution.

As Rodriguez and Walker talk, construction crews hammer away at a swift-rising residential tower developed by Melo Group, located just a few blocks south of the under-construction Canvas tower. Across the street, in the vacant Tomorrowland building, a new tenant is moving in with plans of opening a bar concept.

“Things are happening quickly,” says Walker. “We just need to make sure we do our part.”

Miami Herald staff writer Rene Rodriguez contributed to this report.