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FloridaFlorida: a magical empowerment zone.

To some, the area seemed like a ghost town - rundown factory buildings and hotels from the 1920s, some abandoned, all in disrepair - but to Eugene Rodriguez, president and owner of Miami's Big Time Productions, it seemed like a golden opportunity.
And why not? Just a five-minute car ride across the causeway from the bustling South Beach area, the location was Rodriguez's ticket to expansion. Big Time was growing beyond what its South Beach facility could reasonably handle and no new property was available. So, eleven months ago, the entrepreneur bought a 100,000-square foot former ice-packing plant, as well as various other properties across the causeway, and transformed them all into working studio and stage spaces.

"It just made a lot of sense," he recalls. "South Beach become very, very expensive, and there was no room for that kind of horizontal studio. We were lucky to find what we needed right across the bridge. It has a great style and the feel of South Beach in the '20s and '30s."

Rodriguez is not alone, however. If the Miami-Dade film office has its way, he will be soon be joined by many neighbors, who will also service the film and television business. Indeed, if all goes as planned, the area may well be the next production hotspot, thanks to its recent designation as an "economic empowerment zone."

An empowerment zone sounds almost magical. And to those existing within its borders, the designation does create a kind of financial enchantment, with various federal loans and subsidies becoming available to companies who open businesses in and hire people from the area.

Specifically, explains Jeff Peel, director of the Miami-Dade Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment, an empowerment zone is a designation that the community is deemed in need of economic development assistance. "The zone is geographically specific," he says. "It's not the entire community but the most economically challenged parts of the community."

He cites Times Square in New York City as an example of an area that became an empowerment zone about three years ago. "It was formerly a very vibrant part of Manhattan but it had fallen into a bad state," he observes. "With the designation, and the attraction of the incentives and resources, it once again became a focal point of Manhattan. The same thing can happen here."

Once a neighborhood is designated, different categories of financial incentives become available. The first comes from the federal government. That involves tax credits for employing people within the zone and for rehabbing an environmentally raw land or building. Besides credits, low-interest loans become available for the development of properties within the zone.

In Miami's case, the federal portion of the funding comes to $100 million over ten years. That is matched by local and state funding, also about $100 million, depending on the appropriations. "The local match can go to various programs," explains Peel, although not all of which are entertainment-based. The funds' uses include day care centers and transportation alternatives for people traveling to work.

The designation has its roots in a 1996 study by Cornell University and Florida International University. Designed to determine the best use of the downtown section for long-range strategic planning, the study found that the film and entertainment industry was fast becoming the mainstay of much of the Miami-Dade economy.

The local chamber of commerce also set up a task force called One Community One Goal, to follow up on the report's findings. "It became apparent to me that one of the things we needed to grow was the local infrastructure that supports the entertainment business," recalls Bill Randall, who served for over a year on the task force and is also the president of AFI/Filmworks in South Miami. "The empowerment zone seems to be a natural part of that."

Randall speaks from experience, since he has worked in South Miami for over 30 years. "When we started this business, Miami had been a busy production place," he recalls. "There was lots of infrastructure. More had been happening. That was the time of Flipper [, the TV series,] and the Ivan Tors Studios. Since then, except for the Miami Vice [TV series] period, it's been a boom or bust situation. Our challenge right now is going to be to encourage and help indigenous companies to grow and to get producers to come and produce product from a local base. I won't kid anyone. It's not an easy thing to do."

The designated area has many advantages, however. Only a short distance from South Beach, it features a great deal of low-rent warehouse space, abandoned property, and raw land. "Some parts of it are like the old downtown, dating back to the '20s," Peel notes. "A lot is in disrepair. But the big attraction is that it's just north of the downtown core. And we hear time and again that South Beach is where people want be. It is an international hot spot, and also an interesting place architecturally, with a great look that film people love. [For after hours,] it also has a great night life, like Santa Monica, Manhattan, or London's Soho."

In addition, the neighborhood will soon gain a new veneer of culture when the city completes its planned performing arts center, also located in the zone, in the year 2002. The complex will feature the Florida Opera and the New World School of Performing Arts, among other buildings. "This center will provide a real synergy for those in the industry," predicts Peel. "The singers, dancers, and musicians who are performing in the arts center are the same people who will provide talent for the stages."

Big Time Productions is already feeling the effects of the changing environment. The facility has been used for print and film campaigns by Burdines Department Store, Versaci, Pier 1 Imports, Slimfast, American Banana chips, and Italian Vogue. For six months, director Oliver Stone used some of the space to construct sets for a new feature he was shooting

To handle such jobs, the company purchased seven properties. One, now dubbed The Ice Palace, was a 100,000-square-foot ice packing plant from the 1920s and two others were a 40,000-square-foot hotel and a 14,000-square-foot bank. The seven-story hotel has been turned into a series of stages/studios, but some of it was also kept intact to use as, in Rodriguez's words, a "funky" location.

"Some of it looks like a set," he explains, "with a gorgeous lobby with skylights. The second floor looks like an industrial New York loft. And the third floor has cracked paint, some of it peeling. It looks like a deconstructionist set. A lot of creative people like the environment and the texture."

Other Miami companies are also looking to expand across the bridge into the new zone. For instance, Bill Randall, of AFI/Filmworks, says he is seriously interested in the area because it could attract more homegrown business.

"Our base has always been on the outside," he says. "We don't have that many agencies or large industrial companies located here. We are sort of an international production center for commercials. We get a lot of Europeans, a lot from Latin America. There is great strength in the looks we have to offer: palm trees and beaches but also New England neighborhoods. We have a few blocks downtown which could pass for New York. So we have almost everything for locations, from big city to rural farms to suburbs."

"This is an international city," agrees Peel. "Multi-national companies come here to work because they have proximity to the Latin America and the U.S. Miami is the third largest production center in the United States and we have all the components required to do virtually any kind of production: the crews, the talent, and the vendors. With the zone, we are interested in providing expansion opportunities for companies that already exist here and get companies to relocate here from out of state."

For the moment, everything is in its earliest stages. The local government is actively promoting the news that the incentives exist and is currently conducting focus groups with industry representatives - both locally and nationally - to determine the best way that dollars can be allocated to attract more entertainment companies to work and/or set up shop there. For this fiscal year, the state has pledged $3 million and the local government $3 million. A board is being set up to determine the most efficient way to use future money to spur development in the zone.

"We are asking industry people what sorts of incentives are attractive to them, what is required within the zone," Peel notes. "We want to know, what can the local community do to enhance the zone? We are looking to the industry as a growth engine for job creation in the next ten years or so."

"South Beach used to be called this area's sheekest slum," adds Rodriguez. "Now, this new area will probably get that title. It's changing so quickly. It was a dead place, but once the opera and ballet go up, things will change rapidly. You know, it's one extreme or another. The fact that it's been made an empowerment zone can only help."