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Council approves controversial lease for Austin Studios building

Friday, August 28, 2009 by John Davidson

Austin City Council voted 6-1 Thursday to approve the Austin Film Society’s long-term lease agreement with Soundcheck, a Nashville music rehearsal and production company that wants to sublease about 28,000 square feet at Austin Studios. Council Member Chris Riley, who tried to postpone the vote, was the lone dissenter.


In recent weeks, the deal stirred up opposition from local music business owners, who claim the lease will give Soundcheck an unfair advantage because Austin Studios, located on 20 acres of city-owned land, pays no property taxes and only $100 a year to the city in rent. Among such opponents at the meeting was Dan Cabela, owner of Music Lab–a company that offers similar services as Soundcheck.


“We want to make sure things are fair,” he told Council before the vote. “There hasn’t been much openness or disclosure or dialogue.”


The deal also met with opposition from some in the local film industry, who worried that leasing Stage 4 to a company that rents music equipment and rehearsal space would take away much-needed film production capacity in Austin.


As part of the lease–details of which the Austin Film Society has thus far considered proprietary and withheld from the public–Soundcheck will make $500,000 in improvements to Stage 4, with Austin Studios contributing another $475,000. Soundcheck has plans for major renovations at the space, bolstered by a five-year lease agreement with two five-year options after that.


According to Austin Studios Executive Director Rebecca Campbell, Stage 4 has not brought in consistent revenue in recent years, citing the ups and downs of the film industry. Having Soundcheck as a long-term tenant would ensure a steady revenue stream for Austin Studios, she said. Campbell has been quoted saying the monthly rent on Stage 4 would be between 51 to 85 cents per square foot.


Speaking before City Council, Campbell called the lease a, “win for our organization, our industry and our city.”


Opponents and supporters of the deal, representing members of the city’s music and films industries, packed City Hall Thursday to weigh in on the matter; more than 50 people signed up to address City Council, of which only a handful actually spoke.


Among them was Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater’s assistant, Kirsten McMurray, who delivered a message on his behalf in support of the lease agreement: “This is the best choice for the Austin Film Society. We have never lost a film because Austin is overbooked; the film industry here will not suffer.”


But others were more skeptical of the advantages of having Soundcheck as a tenant at Austin Studios. Producer Paul Alvarado-Dykstra asked the council for more time: “There is no need to push this through right now,” he said. “At least delay the vote on the resolution pending a more thorough analysis. Let’s quantify what Soundcheck is getting out of this and what we’re getting out of it.”


At one point, Riley made a motion to delay a vote until the Sept. 24 council meeting. “I think it would be behoove us to get more input from members of the arts community,” he said.


But as discussion of delaying the vote progressed, Soundcheck owner Ben Jumper got up from the crowd and told City Council that if there were another delay on the lease agreement, “the film society will probably lose its deal and we’ll be looking for some other place.”


Council Member Randi Shade then made a substitute motion to approve the lease agreement, adding that she sympathized with the concerns of those opposing the deal.


“The City of Austin has a lot invested in the Austin Film Society,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell before the final vote. “We need to make sure that we continue to nurture it in every fair way that we can.”

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