ALLEN PARK (WXYZ) - A movie producer promising 3,000 jobs and almost $150 million in investments. A downriver city eager to reinvent itself, and hungry for economic development. It seemed like a match made in Hollywood, but as Action News Investigator Heather Catallo tells us, this is a story that’s not following a script.
For Unity Studios, it's been the best of times, and the worst of times.
The real life drama playing out in Allen Park could be a screenplay of its own, starring the city officials that helped land the company and its film school, and the Hollywood producer they recently threatened to evict.
Announced in April of last year, it’s a partnership between the city and Hollywood veteran Jimmy Lifton, the shaggy haired, suspender clad producer who’s made films you’ve probably never heard of, like “Little Cobras: Operation Dalmation” and “The Secret Agent Club” starring Hulk Hogan.
The films may not have made big bucks at the box office, but Lifton says they were investments that earned him big returns. And that’s why he says the recent spat with the city over unpaid rent won’t stop him from fulfilling his ultimate mission of establishing a “made in Michigan” movie industry.
"If we can successfully launch an industry, get the mechanics and fundamentals there, and create our own product with our own talent… we’re all going to make money," said Lifton.
But others aren’t so sure, including some of Wayne County’s highest ranking officials.
"We were very nervous that this kind of deal would compromise the tax incentives offered up by the state," said Turkia Awada Mullin, Wayne County's Chief Development Officer.
She's in favor of the Michigan tax credits offered to movie studios, but she’s not sold on the viability of Unity Studios. In 2009, Wayne County offered to eliminate the company’s state and local taxes. But first, Unity would need providing evidence behind their promises of 3,000 jobs and almost $150 million in investmenst. Did they?
"That’s a no," said Mullin, acknowledging that the company never provided proof they had the wherewithal to do what they promised. As a result, Unity Studios didn't receive the lucrative tax breaks.
It’s not the first time Jimmy Lifton’s been hesitant to share information about himself or his company. At the Allen Park Downtown Development Authority, Lifton asked for a $2 million unsecured loan to improve his film school. He didn't get that either. Why?
"Jimmy Lifton failed to bring in certain documentation which was part of the conditions for the loan to be granted," said Allen Park Mayor Gary Burtka.
Burtka acknowledges Unity Studios hasn’t met expectations over the last year, but insists it’s still going to be a success, even though he could not answer some very basic questions about what the company’s done:
When asked how many jobs Lifton has created, Burtka admitted he wasn't sure.
"You'd have to ask Jimmy Lifton on that," he told our Heather Catallo.
What about proof that Lifton would live up to his promises that were touted in all those press releases?
"I don't believe he (provided it)," said Burtka.
The city also never received verification that the Unity Studios would create 3,000 jobs, as Lifton had promised.
Our investigation is raising questions about whether or not the city did its due diligence when it bought the old Visteon property that now houses Unity and other tenants. At the time Allen Park and Lifton announced that Unity would be headquartered there, the city hadn’t even purchased the property from the developer. Experts fear that gave the owner an upper hand in negotiations, and drove the property’s price even higher.
Burtka acknowledged the city didn't own the building at the time of the groundbreaking.
As for the cost, the city paid $25.5 million in all, but a judgment by the state tax tribunal says the property is worth far less than what the city paid for it: only $14 million.
"Our assessors took a look at it and felt it was, the financing department, the assessing department, all felt it was worth that money. Actually, probably substantially more," said Burtka.
But Wayne County's Chief Development Officer, who is also a real estate attorney, disagreed.
"Paying close to $250,000 per acre in an area, in an urban setting is really almost unheard of in this day and age, " Mullin told Action News.
Still, Mayor Gary Burtka insists the city paid a fair price, and that he'd make the same deal again.
When our investigation continues tomorrow at 6PM, meet the one city official who said Unity Studios was too risky for taxpayers, and found himself without a job.
If you have a tip for the Action News Investigative Team, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.
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