Pinewood Studios project gets planners’ OK
How ‘Drop Dead Diva,’ noisy airplanes and a last-minute flight led to a multi-million-dollar project for Fayette
“We haven’t seen a project like this in a long time, if ever,” Matt Forshee of the Fayette County Development Authority told the county Planning Commission March 7.
The commissioners agreed in a 4-to-0 vote to send the 288-acre Pinewood Studios proposal to the next step before the Fayette County Commission, with a final decision on the request for General Business rezoning likely within a month.
Between the first official presentation of an internationally known movie and television production company locating in the rural middle of Fayette County and the contentious final vote — with Commissioner Tim Thoms twice seeking to delay any decision on the proposal and finally abstaining from the final vote — the audience of more than two dozen heard how serendipity played a large role in the process.
“Drop Dead Diva” was the starting point, developer and project manager Jim Pace told the commission. That’s the Lifetime cable channel’s popular situation comedy that’s just been renewed for a fifth season. It has been filmed since 2009 in several hangars converted into sound stages and production studios at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, but has no connection with Pinewood Studios.
Seeking to lure a new prospect into another hangar, Pace, Forshee and others took Pinewood Studios executives to Falcon Field on a Saturday morning last fall. The roar of private aircraft powering up for takeoff turned off the execs, who told Pace they didn’t want any sound stages located at a noisy airport.
In a spur-of-the-moment fall-back idea, Forshee suggested the studio execs take a look at a rural part of the county that might be more suited to a studio complex, Pace told the commission. One helicopter ride over the central Fayette expanse hooked the executives and led to the deal that is on track to bring Pinewood Studios here.
Project architect Bill Foley of Peachtree City told the group the half-mile wide and one mile long site is 14 times the scale of Pinewood Studios home near London, England. Five sound stages will be constructed in the first phase, and initial use of the facility is expected to start by this time next year.
The economic impact is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars just within the next five years, Forshee said.
Phase one will produce 2,074 full-time jobs directly, Forshee said, as well as creating another 6,772 jobs in related and support areas.
The direct labor income alone is expected to top $95 million over five years, Forshee said.
In his prepared remarks, Forshee made an impassioned plea for commission approval of the initial rezoning:
“Help us make Fayette County the home for film in Georgia. Help an international studio company spend millions of dollars to build state of the art facilities, facilities that will be like no other in Georgia, facilities that will bring in movies like ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘Star Wars,’ help them bring that to Fayette County,” Forshee said.
“Help companies like Viacom and Disney and directors like JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg spend millions of their Hollywood dollars in our businesses located here in Fayette County. Help camera companies and lighting companies and special effects companies and the myriad of other supply businesses have a reason to locate their business in Fayette County so that they can pay sales taxes and property taxes,” Forshee said.
“Help an estimated 170 Fayette County residents be employed next year in the film industry in Fayette County and help an estimated 1,700 Fayette County residents be employed there in 15 years. Help the elementary student today have a new exciting career tomorrow, one we can help provide training for and which will allow our children to stay here in this community. Help the framer, the electrician, the plumber, who just a few years ago was building houses here — help them have a way to transition their skill set so that tomorrow they are building the set for Darth Vader’s new Death Star inside a building on Sandy Creek Road,” Forshee said.
“Help us bring that magic that is the movies to Fayette County. One last point that I think is very important. Separate the international company whose name has been noted in the papers, this project is a local project. The development group is local. These people live in your neighborhoods. These people shop in your stores. These people go to your churches. They have hired local architects, local engineers, and will be hiring local contractors and local builders. Those dollars spent here are going to stay here,” Forshee said.
Here are descriptions of the project provided to the planning commission:
“We propose to develop a production facility that will consist of multiple production studio sound stage buildings and outdoor natural areas. The goal of the project is to provide on-site expertise and infrastructure to ensure that production companies can produce entertainment projects seamlessly here in Fayette County.
“The studios will provide independently-owned media companies a full range of production services to cater to every aspect of on-site filming.
“The project will be developed with a total of five television production studio sound stages; however, the size of the subject parcel will allow for potential future expansion of the studios as market demand expands. Once the project is completed, the studios will serve numerous international production companies and provide a significant economic impact to the county.
“The entrance to the project is currently envisioned to reflect the character and elements of a rural farm and village. ...
“Included in the berming and landscaping design along Veterans Parkway and Sandy Creek Road is a 10-foot-wide multi-use path for public use. ...
“The production stages and supporting buildings will be visually separated from the surrounding roads with a combination of using the natural grades of the existing site, and by berming and landscaping along Veterans Parkway and Sandy Creek Road.
“Within the secured set areas the buildings and surroundings will be provided the ability to change facades to adapt to the production companies changing needs, such as recreations of Paris, New York, or street scenes.
“This will allow production companies worldwide to use the facilities without leaving Fayette County. The visual seclusion of the secured set area also provides for the control of outside noises necessary for the productions.
“The sound stages are constructed with intense soundproofing materials that will contain production noises within the buildings. This will maintain the sound levels both on set and the surrounding areas. ...
“The project will have production staff, employees, and talent year round; however, a majority of television production is done during the early months of each year. At no time are the operations associated with the production studios anticipated to cause unnecessary traffic congestion along Sandy Creek Road or Veterans Parkway.”