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Hillsborough County film studio plan goes off script

Two companies sought to partner with the county, but officials reject both proposals.
Hillsborough County government administrators recommended rejecting bids from two companies seeking to partner with the county on a film production studio. Shown is an image of the interior of 211 Studios at 211 N. Meridian Ave, Tampa.
Hillsborough County government administrators recommended rejecting bids from two companies seeking to partner with the county on a film production studio. Shown is an image of the interior of 211 Studios at 211 N. Meridian Ave, Tampa. [ Hillsborough County ]
Published Jan. 25

Hillsborough County is poised to yell “cut” on a plan for a publicly supported large-scale film production studio, but whether there will be a second take is not yet determined.

The county, following the findings of a 2021 study that said the region could support a 60,000-square foot studio, sought proposals last summer for a private sector partner on the project.

The county intended to reimburse the private company’s “verifiable capital needs” according to the solicitation for proposals. The county had said it had about $2 million available from the BP gulf oil spill settlement it received.

Related: Hillsborough seeks proposals for a potential film studio partner

Two companies submitted proposals, but a committee of three top county administrators recommended rejecting both in a Nov. 30 review.

Bluewater Media proposed to move its 36,000-square-foot studio and agency headquarters from Clearwater to Hillsborough, potentially to the space formerly occupied by the Museum of Science and Industry on Fowler Avenue. The museum site, however, was not part of the county’s film studio project. Hillsborough also doesn’t traditionally offer financial incentives for businesses relocating from a neighboring county unless the alternative is the company moving out of state, said Ron Barton, assistant county administrator for economic prosperity.

Tampa-based Kestum Bilt formed a new partnership with the existing studio of 211 Meridian Holdings for its pitch that included a training component to school people for careers in the film and video production industry,

The county reviewers liked that public benefit, but said it might be better handled by the county’s own workforce development efforts and not be tied to a single company through the studio project.

“We were taken aback about it,” said Pete Guzzo, CEO of Kestum Bilt, which does workforce training through its existing program called Jolt Production School. “It’s a little bit of a surprise that we pitched ideas they loved, rejected and they’re going ahead.”

Guzzo said the company would continue its own student training and did not intend to submit a second proposal if the county issues a new request.

Related: Hillsborough wants a large-scale film studio to lure blockbusters

Hillsborough film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said the timing of the county’s 2021 request, issued in the traditionally busy summer season for film companies, likely contributed to just two company’s responding. Seeking a new request in the winter months could produce more interest, he said.

A plan to formally reject the two proposals and potentially seek that second request with a more narrow focus could be considered by Hillsborough County commissioners next month.

“They thought it was wise to have it open-ended and let’s just see what the market will bring,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan, the leading commission advocate for the film studio. “Now they’re thinking ... well maybe we should have a more concise or defined plan.”

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