“Dis-Unity” Studios?

A news report from Detroit TV station WDIV seems to indicate that a $146 million film production studio has instead become a boondoggle for the city of Allen Park. The official news release from the governor's office touted that Unity Studios would create up to "121 new jobs" initially, then as many as 3,000 new jobs when the facility is "at full operation." Backers also boasted it would include "a village where people can live, shop and find entertainment options" at the proposed 104-acre site on the privately owned land that once housed the Visteon Technical Center.

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The fact that a former Michigan resident and current California film industry veteran Jimmy Lifton would return home to spearhead Unity Studios, and open his own school (courses and tuition costs listed here) seemed to be the icing on the cake for a project that was summarized in this official announcement by Allen Park Mayor Gary Burtka:

"This project represents new hope and, more importantly, job opportunities for thousands of Allen Park residents and auto workers who have lost their jobs.  We have found an economic boost in the lights, cameras and action of Michigan's newest high-tech industry."  

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) sweetened the deal by recommending that the Michigan Economic Growth Authority (MEGA) approve a $2.8 million tax credit over 12 years. The MEDC also tacked on $83,000 more for job training. The City of Allen Park promised an investment of up to $40 million to buy and prep the land. A Renaissance Zone designation by Wayne County would allow Unity to avoid all state and county property taxes.

Groundbreaking on Unity Studios was held in late August.

Turns out, the groundbreaking was ceremonial. There's no Renaissance Zone. A Wayne County official told me the county has not yet received the purchase agreement or other necessary documentation from Unity stakeholders to even consider the Renaissance Zone status. Lifton had promised to donate $2 million to the city - this happens to be the same amount he requested as a loan from the city. The Allen Park Downtown Development Authority did approved a $1.5 million, unsecured loan for Lifton, but the DDA reportedly has also not gotten the needed paperwork to process that loan.

Lifton issued a statement in response to the WDIV report claiming that it was an "ambush interview" that might give people the wrong impression:

"This project, one that requires significant financing and government approvals, has been hampered by the depression engulfing our economy. In addition, the negative perceptions created by some politicians in Lansing who threatened to reduce or eliminate Michigan's best-in-the-nation film tax credits have slowed down all the state's studio projects...Even with these hurdles, Unity is moving forward.  The Lifton Institute for Media Skills begins its first classes next week, despite the hardships imposed by the State running out of funds for job training."

As the reporter in the TV news story said, "The final script has yet to be written on the Unity deal." While city and studio officials write that script, taxpayers are left wondering whose happy ending these officials have in mind.