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Austin Studios Puts Out the 'For Rent' Sign

Austin Film Society seeks anchor tenants to build a new community

By Richard Whittaker, 8:00AM, Thu. Feb. 6

Up for rent: Austin Studio's latest addition, the former National Guard Armory, is looking for some major anchor tenants
Up for rent: Austin Studio's latest addition, the former National Guard Armory, is looking for some major anchor tenants

The history of Austin Studios has been one of a shifting footprint, swapping parts of their original west end with the Mueller development for the old National Guard Armory on the Eastside. Now with the armory in their inventory, Austin Film Society is looking for anchor tenants to build up a new community.

Film and TV production can be a temporary business. Take a look by Stage Five, and you'll see a different colored patch of tarmac: Up until a few months ago, that was the in-ground swimming pool for the set of The Lying Game, but it was filled in when the show was cancelled. Moreover, the studio's future plans involve growth and helping small local productions to flourish and expand. But part of the challenge for Austin Studios is in smoothing out the humps between big productions, and anchor tenants in the new buildings should do that, while building up the entire infrastructure. Austin Film Society executive director Rebecca Campbell said, "We want to bring new resources and new blood into the system."

request for qualifications or RFQ to find exactly that new blood. The aim is to have anchor tenants, each of whom would occupy at least 10,000 square feet of the 55,000 square feet of rentable stage and office space in the building. Their presence will also boost the renovation of the armory space: Although there are already small productions shooting and working in the old hanger and office space, there's a lot of work to be done. Even though voters approved $5.4 million in construction bonds in November 2012, the cost of a full rehab job will easily be double that.

So in Austin Studios' eyes, what defines an anchor tenant? "It doesn't have to be a brand name," said Campbell, "because there's all sort of businesses within creative media who are under the radar." However, they will be responsible for their own build-out and "consequently, they're going to want a long term deal in order to amortize their investment."

It also doesn't have to just be one tenant: As long as the space is split roughly 50-50 between anchors and smaller, short-term neighbors, there could be as many as three names under this new deal. Campbell said, "Ideally we would get a couple, but if we get one and they want 30,000 feet and they fit all the criteria and they bring everything to the table that we like, then I would still be very excited to make a deal with them."

There's also no prioritization of local over national tenants: But if a national-level firm moved in as a long-term anchor, it would change the mix on the campus. "Right now, the way the balance works is that the short term tenants that come in to shoot are usually not local," said Campbell, "whereas most of the long term tenants that are in the Red Building are local businesses."

If anything, it's the Red Building, with its 17 tenants, that is the model for the creative hub. Campbell said, "Knowing that we were going to get this building years ago, we've always had the goal of diversifying the mix of tenants, and having long term and short term tenants - film production, video, interactive, businesses, artists, et cetera." That mix already in place in the existing studio space, ranging from Soundcheck Austin leasing out Stage Four, to a host of independent film makers and production support companies renting out rooms in the distinctive Red Building. So far, that model has been pretty succesful. "There's a waiting list for the Red Building, and the hangers are all full."

The other part of the process was to define what the studio and the greater community sees as its core values. They're summed up in six basic criteria at the heart of the RFQ:

• Firms with an established reputation for excellence within their field
• Someone who will diversify the tenant portfolio or can develop a niche area
• Add to the Austin creative ecosystem with new jobs, new products or services, and/or economic impact. That and/or could be important, because it opens up opportunities for non-profits.
• A demonstrated commitment to collaboration and community development, through acts such as volunteerism and workforce training
• Strong interest in broader participation within the hub community
• The big one: Proven financial and operational capacity and stability. There's no point having an anchor tenant if they're out of business in six months.

In part, those priorities came out of a community consultation process, funded through a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Its purpose was to find out exactly what Austinites - both within the production community and in the wider Austin creative class - really want and need from the studio. Campbell said, "It's really important to us that the visitors and the tenants at Austin Studios have a pleasant experience, so that there's a good interface between us and the community." At the same time, she added, "the areas that are designed for the public are accessible and inviting, and the areas that are designed to be private are private."

Potential tenants have until April 30 to apply (full details on the RFQ document), but before then the studio is holding two information sessions: Feb. 25 and March 10 at 11pm at the Armory building, 1901 E. 51st. For more info, visit www.austinfilm.org/anchortenants.

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