big promises + zero results = 650K wasted
published August 31, 2013 in SRQ Daily
Many hardworking Americans this Labor Day will enjoy a well-deserved break. For hardworking Sarasota taxpayers, September 2 is important for another reason—it marks the contractual deadline for the creation of 117 jobs by Sanborn Studios. Sarasota County entered into an agreement with Sanborn Studios in September 2010, awarding the firm $650,000 in economic development grants. According to the County, the “game changer” deal would provide Sarasota with a “new economic sector.” Sanborn Studios’ expected five-year economic impact was reported to be $164 million.
Sanborn Studios trumpeted “Hollywood is coming to Sarasota!” Kenneth Sanborn said two shows were slated for production, and he expected the “world class facility” would “attract outside production to the area.” The public was told at least 117 employees would be hired over the next three years (with 60 hires in the first year). Sanborn Studios promised an average employee salary of $72,000. A 30,000-square-foot main office opened in Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park, with an additional 30,000-square-foot production center at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. The company committed to a $30-million dollar capital investment over the first 18 months. Stated expansion plans included a reported land purchase option agreement for 22 acres in Lakewood Ranch. Sanborn executive Katherine Behr claimed the firm would “quickly position Sarasota as a production hub for both film and television.” County Commissioner Joe Barbetta called the Sanborn deal a “breakthough achievement.”
News reports at the time also described Sarasota County’s total financial commitment as $717,000, including a local match for state funds totaling $468,000. Another report indicated the company’s state and local incentives totaled nearly $1.5 million, with expected property tax breaks from Sarasota County. With significant state and County dollars involved, what have hardworking Sarasota taxpayers gotten for their money?
In November 2010, reports surfaced questioning the industry track record of key Sanborn executives. In February 2011, Sanborn Studios dropped the option to purchase land in Lakewood Ranch and approached the county with a request for another $500,000 in incentive funds. That December, Sanborn Studios terminated a Lakewood Ranch lease agreement, moving the entire operation to a facility at 15th Street outside the airport. Today, the Sarasota Film and Entertainment Office website lists nothing about Sanborn projects. A near-empty parking lot for the company’s 15th Street office indicates far fewer than 117 employees. The Sanborn Studios’ airport facility (ironically, in Manatee County) has a “Space For Lease” sign in front.
The County’s agreement with Sanborn Studios stipulates that for each job it fails to create, Sanborn Studios must pay back $2,992 within 60 days of the September 2, 2013 deadline – an opportunity to recoup up to $350K. It’s time for the County to get a verifiable record of Sanborn Studios’ employee count.
It’s also time for taxpayers to assess which County leaders are credible stewards of the community’s economic development. Today’s questionable “economic development”: County plans to loosen 2050 Plan standards to facilitate development outside the Urban Service Boundary. It’s another potential boondoggle that neglects our cities and encourages blight.
The Sanborn Studios deal apparently lacked sound vetting and indicates when our local government proclaims what is good for the local economy, it’s time to take a closer look and hang on to your wallet.