Allegheny County draws ire for $225K grant to film reality TV show

| Friday, July 5, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

Allegheny County gave $225,000 to help fund a reality television show, causing critics to question whether the grant was proper.

The county Redevelopment Authority awarded the money to a TV project called “The Chair,” saying it would bring 125 jobs and promote the region.

Viewers will be asked to vote on the better of two competing teams making a movie from the same script.

“That's a lot of jobs they're projecting. I'd like to see them account for that number,” said County Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, who said the jobs would be short-term. “That money should be used for economic development purposes. I don't want public money going for film production. (The authority's) role should be to stimulate long-term jobs.”

The money comes from the Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund, funded by casino taxes. The authority board, appointed by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and chaired by Herky Pollock, executive vice president of CBRE Inc., approved the grant June 21.

Advocates say the investment will help solidify a growing movie and television industry.

“We think it's a really good project. It's a successful operation, and they'll spend a lot of money locally,” Fitzgerald said. “... These are real jobs, people who build sets, hotels, tourism. What it comes down to is job creation.”

Pollock noted that grants from the casino money typically go toward infrastructure or other improvements.

“However, they are often also used to promote businesses that serve the purpose of promoting the region, creating jobs, promoting tourism — which this clearly does — or enhancing the lives of the residents of Allegheny County,” Pollock said.

Under Pennsylvania's gambling law, casinos keep 45 percent of their profits and pay 55 percent to the state. Four percent of that tax money goes to local and county governments. The county's guidelines for using that money — $6.6 million a year — say it's to be used “to facilitate economic development through infrastructure assistance, stabilize or correct existing infrastructure problems, or plan and prepare sites and buildings for future use.”

The nonprofit Steeltown Entertainment is supervising the making of “The Chair,” which will cost about $3 million. Steeltown President and CEO Carl Kurlander said the county helped fund a similar production in 2006 — R.L. Stine's “The Haunting Hour” — that brought 115 jobs and $2.1 million spent locally. The Cartoon Network and later ABC Family picked up that movie.

“The bottom line is we need to create new industries here. This would be a unique showcase for an emerging industry here. It shows others where they should locate their projects,” Kurlander said. “Despite the cynicism, this is an emerging market in Pittsburgh.”

County officials awarded the money without consulting the Pittsburgh Film Office, a nonprofit organization that markets Western Pennsylvania as a great location for movie, television and commercial productions.

Film office director Dawn Keezer said that if county officials are willing to fund “The Chair,” they should consider giving her office money.

“I think it's great that the county is willing to invest in film production,” Keezer said. “I hope the county program gets opened up to local projects as they come in.”

The reality TV show will spend the money on equipment, lighting and various “hard assets” necessary to make the show, said Bob Hurley, senior deputy of the county's Economic Development Department.

“What's the opportunity cost for that grant? Are there communities in need of infrastructure?” said Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon. “They used the same argument for the film tax credit at the state level. Now there's another pot of money at the local level.”

Despite film industry hopes for more government support, state leaders this week declined to raise the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credits program, keeping it at $60 million a year.

The industry sought to raise the cap to $100 million or lift it entirely because the tax credits typically are exhausted within three months. The program gives film and TV producers a 25 percent tax credit if they spend at least 60 percent of their budgets in the state.

The county's grant is not affiliated with the state tax credits program.

“The Chair” will be produced by Chris Moore, a producer of “Good Will Hunting,” the “American Pie” series and the HBO show “Project Greenlight.” Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in the most recent “Star Trek” movies, is another producer.

Kurlander said Moore talked with several cable networks about airing the show, although nothing is finalized. Options include Netflix, he said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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