The debate over the perceived stall in bringing a movie theater to St. Clair County continues.
Last week, former Pell City Mayor Adam Stocks said that it seemed that the current administration has stalled in getting the ball moving on the $7 million, 35,000 square foot, state-of-the-art theater, which will be located off Highway 231 near I-20.
Last spring, when Stocks was mayor, Pell City assigned the land as a cooperative district. That move freed up many of the obstructions that NOAS Entertainment, who purchased and are charged with development the theater, was having at the time.
As a cooperative district the site not only freed up NOAS to acquire a better bond issuance and rate. It also took away the burden for Pell City in dealing with the site’s preparation.
A cooperative district allows the group that controls it—in this case, NOAS Entertainment—to raise funds through a private bond issue without any involvement from the city in which the district lies. In short, it eases ways for someone to raise private funds and also allows the property owners to raise money as if it is its own municipality.
Creating the cooperative district had been done twice before in recent years.
Also last spring, Pell City, NAOS, I-20 Development, Inc and Pell City’s Commercial Development Authority entered into a contract that required a two-year turnaround on the theater project once the city had prepared the property.
Ground was expected to be broken by NAOS in April of last year.
The current controversy began last week when Stocks said in the News-Aegis that he was “extremely disappointed in the lack of interest that city leaders have in keeping the movie theater deal alive. A year ago it was on schedule to start construction. The only thing I’ve seen happen on that site since that time was that the Porta-Potty was knocked over. I’m upset because we worked extremely hard and it took every bit of three years to find the right company that would take a chance on Pell City even though demographics and population numbers were not the right recipe that most movie theater companies were looking for.”
Stocks also said last week that if further action is not taken then it might mean that the theater company will wash its hands of Pell City.
“There are talks of the sagging economy; but I don’t buy into it because ticket sales in the movie theater industry were up last year,” Stocks said in last week’s News-Aegis. “I hope the mayor and all five council members are able to salvage the deal. I would not want to be known as one of the people responsible for Pell City losing its movie theater.”
Donnie Todd, Pell City District 4 councilman said on Tuesday, “I take major issue with former mayor Stocks that this council has not done enough for the theater project. We’ve done everything that we should have done and everything that we could do. NOAS is still operating under their contract and it was former mayor Stocks that set the timetable deadline that they have. The criticism that former mayor Stocks has directed at this administration is not valid and everything is where it can be at this point in time.”
Last week Stocks said that moviegoers are anxious to see something happen in the area soon and added that he would hate to see one be built somewhere else close by and Pell City miss out on a theater opportunity.
“He’s right in that movies are a good bargain right now and people are going to movies now, but that’s only half of the coin,” Todd said. “There’s another side of the coin that former mayor Stock does not have; and that is that financing options are limited now. I don’t care if there’s 50,000 people lined up to see a movie. If the guy can’t get the money to build a theater he can’t get the money. It’s not this council’s duty to build it for them.”
Todd took exception to Stocks by saying that the current council isn’t “dropping the ball or not doing what we’re supposed to. The delay is caused by the date that former mayor Stocks gave to NAOS and they have not reached their deadline yet.”
Former mayor Stocks continues to take issue with how the project is evolving. In fact, he said that the theater project is de-evolving.
“I talked to [NAOS Entertainment CEO] Marty Felts last week and every indication he gave me was that the Pell City deal was dead,” Stocks said. “They still own the property and they have almost $1 million invested into the property. I believe their next course of action and what Marty told me is that if they can sell the property for what they have in it then they will do so. I firmly believe that NAOS has no intention to build a theater in Pell City.”
Stocks gave his opinion as to what course he would suggest for county parties involved. “At this point I think that a salvage mission needs to happen to try keep this deal alive. I’m hoping that maybe by the coverage that the theater is getting in the next couple of weeks that it might spark a fire to try to keep the deal intact. As of last week Marty indicated that they intended to sell the property here and vacate the Pell City market.”
CEO Felts said on Tuesday, “There hasn’t been any dialog between the current administration and NAOS.” The current administration has been in office for nearly eight months.
Todd takes issue with a delay on the city’s part. “We’ve done everything we can,” Todd said. “Twice Mr. Felts representatives have given us a start date that we’re still waiting for it to happen.
It seems that the “dialog” may be another stickling point in the issue.
“The contract that was entered into with the last administration is still a good contract,” Councilman Todd said. “I don’t know what dialog would be necessary at this point. A simple update to what has been missed would be good, but that has to come from him (Felts). Even if this council didn’t want this, we’re bound by the contract. It doesn’t matter what administration is in power.”
The contract signed last year gave a two-year timeframe for the theater to be built at the site.
Felts said this week, “NAOS does own the site in Pell City and would like to see the project progress in the future.”
Bill Ellison, a commercial real estate developer and shareholder in I-20 Development Inc, who owned the property originally, said that it is the economy, not the Pell City council’s inaction that has stalled the movie theater.
“In my opinion both administrations have done everything that they could do to encourage the people that proposed this movie theater in Pell City to come here,” Ellison said. “What has happened here is that the economy has created the problem that slowed it down. Right after we got everything put together last year the financial markets crashed.”
That crashed made it difficult for NAOS to secure a bond to fund building the theater.
“They’re still trying to do something in Pell City and they’re still pursing financing,” Ellison, who has worked closely with NAOS, said. “There’s nothing this administration can help with. There is some movement on [NAOS’s] side. They are trying actively to get things on track. The city has done their part to move dirt at the site and assist them in development.”
Ellison noted that NAOS is still in compliance with the time frame written in the original development with the city.
“There’s nothing more in my opinion that this administration or the last administration could have done,” Ellison said. “No one wants to see a movie theater come to Pell City more than I do. I’ll do all I can to help; and the current administration has done all they can and so did the previous administration.”
Todd agreed with Ellison.
“The last I hear was that mayor Hereford told me that he had spoken to Mr. Felts and everything was still on, but obviously we’ve had trouble with the economy and them getting their financing… They gave us a start date they missed it, I understand that they missed it. I wished they hadn’t, but this is uncharted economic territory for us. I understand some delay on their part. They are still within the contract time that former mayor Stocks gave them. If Mr. Felts wants somebody form this administration to call him to tell him we still want it, I’ll still do so. But, of course we still want them here. At the same time I’m not going to call him every week to say, ‘We still want you here.’If he’s blaming his delay on the fact that the mayor or a member of this council hasn’t been in contact with him then that’s not a valid reason to [stall construction].”
Todd continued, “I don’t know what else we can do. We have contract with a reputable individual. These are tough economic times and we understand that. I fully believed that he (Felts) would be here as soon as he could get his financing.”
Though residents might not see visible signs of a theater coming to the I-20 exit, Ellison assured that development of a theater for the area is ongoing.
Pell City mayor Bill Hereford echoed Ellison’s and Todd’s sentiments in dealing with the NAOS contract.
“Everything is going as Adam (Stocks) and the council had set it up,” Hereford said. “We’re hopeful that [NAOS] will live up to their contract. We’re still in touch with them, we talk with them and we know that group has the intent [to build the theater.] But we know these are touch economic times and by the terms of the agreement that [NAOS] and [Adam Stock’s council] agreed to that they have time. They are apparently taking advantage of the time they were given and under these circumstances, we understand. They know we are here to help in any way that we can.”
The debate over the perceived stall in bringing a movie theater to St. Clair County continues.