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Sept. 8 – Differences in County MOU and City MOU explained by SEDA's Brynn Grant; Commissioners to vote Friday

Category: Entertainment Business

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

September 8, 2016 – It’s a concept that has been on the table for many months:  that the Savannah Economic Development Authority and the City of Savannah would ask the Chatham County Commissioners to get on board with supporting their now unified efforts to build and manage the film industry in the Greater Savannah area. The vision is a multi-county,multi-municipality and total Chatham County vision … not just the City of Savannah and SEDA funding a film office.

In June, the Chatham County Commissioners approved their Fiscal 2016-2017 Budget with $100,000 in it, funds designated to go to SEDA for the effort.  But, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between SEDA and the County has not been approved by the Commissioners.  

The Savannah City Council agreed in late June to move the City’s Film Office under the management after SEDA, after reviewing a plan put forward by SEDA President Trip Tollison and COO Brynn Grant (pictured), a plan for SEDA to both expand its own investment in television and film production in the region, and look to other local municipalities and counties who are benefiting from the magnet of the City of Savannah and Tybee Island.  Jobs and directing spending is coming into the entire area from production companies, not just occurring within the Savannah city limits. 

The production companies are coming to the area to capitalize on both the SEDA local tax credits and those from the state of Georgia.

The most recent good news was the decision for Sony to move the second season of the TV series “Underground” from Louisiana to the region to shoot 10 episodes, a projected $45 million direct spend here, with locations being used in Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties. 

But, the County Commissioners have twice postponed making a decision on the MOU, and there has been little public information on what were the internal governmental objections and/or negotiations over the MOU between Chatham County and SEDA.  

And, the question also has been:  What is the difference between the County’s MOU and the City of Savannah’s MOU that has taken more than two months to hammer out?

“The difference is the City’s MOU was used as the foundation,” explains Grant.  “When the County approved the $100,000 in their budget in June, we had shared the City’s MOU with them.  In August they sent us a revised draft.  They are very interested in certain things. The County is committed to tying all their investments into their ‘Community Blueprint’ that they have adopted - that everything they’re doing is filtered through that ‘Community Blueprint,’ explained Grant.   

“They offered us a first draft. Working together, and working together very easily as partners, everything they needed has been addressed, including everything that can be measured, and when it would be measured and how it would be reported is included,” she added.   

The County was seeking an additional level of bench-marking.

“The (city’s) Film Office has always produced a report on the number of productions, employment, budget – their best estimates and best estimates on the direct spend in the county by a production.  And they will continue to do that.  But, those productions are not required by any law to provide us with that information; it is a courtesy and a result of the good relationship that the film office has with the production companies.”

“But now that we have the local incentives (added by SEDA), we can require the reporting of certain information,” she said, by those companies seeking tax incentives.  Of course, not all do.

SEDA’s leadership has assured their Board of Directors, and has put in place, an independent audit process before any SEDA monies are disbursed. 

“And, we can require that they provide more data. We will be altering our 2017 application for those that apply for incentives,” Grant also explained.  

“Another difference the County was seeking, for example, they would like measurements on training programs. We don’t offer training programs, nor are we qualified. However we have been working closely with Savannah Tech and attracting the Savannah Film Academy here, and will monitor the growth of those programs.   In cooperation, we will be reporting that data to that County.”

Each MOU outlines the terms of the city’s and county’s participation in the regional film office for the 2016-2017 fiscal year which already began back on July 1. 

Much of this data is tracked and reported at the State level, as well, which also audits before paying out its incentives.  

SEDA will report all data twice a year to the County.

The move to put the Savannah Film Office under SEDA was not without controversy amidst concerns from three groups:  residents who want to be assured that elected officials have control over whether their neighborhoods are being impacted by production companies;  by the growing local industry workforce here who want to be assured that there will be transparency in what is going on, and who is getting work; and by local businesses, the vendors who cater and rent apartments and supply materials who want to be assured that all vendors will have an equal shot to bid and have access to production companies … that SEDA will not ‘play favorites.’

Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the City Council supported the move because SEDA had already put up significant money for the effort of expanding the industry here, including $150,000 a year for an industry marketing expert and a three-year commitment that totaled $1.5 million to offer incentives that are in addition to those from the State of Georgia.   The City has committed $205,000 annually to the SEDA ‘Film Savannah,’ office and branding strategy.

Working with the City of Tybee Island

The chemistry of it all appears to be working, though Tybee Island has yet to approve its $50,000.  In fact, in June, the City of Tybee went in an altered direction that is focused on their internal process for approving permits for production.

Tybee Main Street Director Chantel Morton and City Manager Diane Schleicher worked over the summer on new film production regulations after residents were upset with issues that arose during the filming of the movie “Baywatch” this Spring. Morton is a member of the Savannah Film Commission, appointed by the Savannah City Council.

Paramount – the same company that caused issues on Broughton Street during the ‘Sponge Bob’ months - expanded the scope of the picture beyond its original permit, and ocean and beach access was affected as the tourism season was beginning. 

Tybee has now created a schedule of fees for commercial films that want to shoot video on Tybee, and established who can approve permits, including requiring more details about each project up front. The city, however, also committed to making faster decisions.

That’s a critical improvement for the new SEDA film office that must work with all municipalities and counties for a long list of permits for every production. 

Editor's Note:  The SBJ is currently reviewing the difference between the two documents. 

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