Lights, Camera, Action – Condos, Banquets, Too

June 22, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — There is a lot of room in the huge old Shaw-Walker factory — about one million square feet. The north side has a great view of the shore of Muskegon Lake, and it's only a short walk to the re-energized downtown Muskegon. Known today as Watermark Center & Lofts, the old furniture factory seems to be an ideal location for condos, or a big banquet hall — or even a movie studio.

Soon it will be all three.

Recently ANM Group, the Brooklyn, N.Y., development company that owns Watermark Center and already has built loft condos in the old factory, announced that a movie studio will be built there to take advantage of the film industry incentives offered by the state of Michigan.

By the holiday season later this year, there will be a new 500-seat banquet hall/conference center opened there, as well.

Watermark Studios, according to an announcement June 10 by ANM Group, will be a partnership of ANM and Moderncine, a New York City film production company. The multimillion dollar production studio will enable filmmakers in Michigan to take advantage of "the best film incentive program in the country, as well as offer the most complete production facility between Los Angeles and New York," according to ANM.

Plans call for three major sound stages, the largest at 17,000 square feet. Moderncine has a fleet of fully equipped lighting and grip production vehicles that can "service multiple productions on-location" outside of Watermark Studios.

Sarah Rooks, manager of Watermark Center & Lofts, said the film studio will entail development of another 330,000 square feet of the old furniture factory. Phase 1 of the development was construction of 53 loft condos, totaling about 85,000 square feet, and Phase 2 will be development this summer of the 11,000 square foot banquet hall and conference center. Phase 3, the movie/television production studio, will still leave more than half of the space available for future development — with the exception of the part that is still used for furniture production by its tenant, the Knoll Group.

Companies that produce movies and television programs in Michigan can apply for a refundable tax credit of 40 percent of their investment — 42 percent if the work is done in a state-designated "core city," which includes Muskegon. The tax credit wipes out whatever the company may have owed under the Michigan Business Tax. The Michigan treasury will then rebate the balance of the credit in cash to that company. As of June 3, the Michigan Film Office in the state government had 22 signed agreements with film producers who have each pledged to spend more than $50,000 on production costs in Michigan this year. The total investment they have committed to is $194 million. More companies are expected to apply.

Another group of entrepreneurs have announced plans to build a film studio in downtown Lansing. Gillespie Group and Ahptic Film & Digital are partnering to build the 71,000-square-foot City Center Studios, which they said will generate an estimated 20 full-time jobs plus "an additional 100 to 300 high-paying freelance positions."

Watermark Studios will also make available financial consulting, bridge loans for film and television projects, casting, location scouting and distribution services, according to ANM Group.

Moderncine president Andrew van den Houten said filmmakers will benefit from "Michigan’s incredible film incentives.” Van den Houten will be working out of Watermark Studios this fall as director of "Offspring," a movie based on a novel by Jack Ketchum.

The new banquet hall planned for Watermark Center is also the talk of the Muskegon business community. The 11,000-square-foot banquet hall, to be called Watermark 920, will be operated by Frank and Gina Lister, under the business name Hearthstone Banquets and Catering. The Listers are the long-time owners of the well-known Hearthstone Restaurant in Muskegon.

Rooks said Watermark 920 will be appropriate for anywhere from "500 people down to 20 people for a small get-together or shower." It will be designed for use for "anything from a wedding to maybe a small trade show. … It will be very chic, but still comfortable."

Work was still being done on the design of the kitchen in mid-June, with selection of a contractor yet to be made. Rooks said she expects the banquet hall to open for business probably around Christmas time.

"We get calls daily from people wanting to rent it," she said. "There is so much interest in this hall — we have been completely overwhelmed by it."

Watermark 920 already has its liquor license, which was transferred from the Eagle Island Golf Course in Muskegon, according to Rooks.

The total investment in the banquet center will be about $2 million, according to Rooks.

"We've already put $600,000 into the space to ‘vanilla box’ it," she said, meaning utilities, mechanical services and fire suppression equipment are in place.

The area selected for the banquet hall is an old loading dock and includes a large patio, she said.

The 53 condos completed previously offer one, two or three bedrooms and are priced from $89,000 to $239,000. About 70 percent are sold, according to Rooks. They are in a state-designated Renaissance Zone.

The Business Journal asked Rooks about the condo market in Muskegon, in view of the state's sluggish economy.

"I think the housing market in general is slower than any one of us in real estate would like it to be," she said, "but we're not discouraged. We have people that come through our door every day, and it just takes the right person to walk in."

Rooks said the Watermark Center is in a prime location within a prime area for people who enjoy being on the water but who still want fairly close access to other major cities and employment.

"I can hop on (the Lake Express) ferry and go to Milwaukee in two hours," she said. The high-speed ferry docks on Muskegon Lake, a couple of minutes drive from Watermark Center.

From Muskegon, the drive to Detroit or Chicago is about three hours or so.

"I can go north to taste wine" in a couple of hours, added Rooks. "I can go to downtown Grand Rapids in 33 minutes — with a lead foot," she joked.

"We have quite a few people who live here, who commute back and forth to work in Grand Rapids, and live on the lakeshore," she noted.

"I can't imagine not living on the water," said Rooks, a native of Muskegon.

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