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Medient, IDA take another step forward
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A film studio planning a mammoth development in Effingham County took another of its needed many big steps Monday afternoon.

The Effingham Industrial Development Authority’s property committee will recommend approving Medient Studios’ master plan, following a meeting between IDA members and studio representatives. The full IDA will vote on the recommendation at its Aug. 15 meeting, with the closing of the lease for the Interstate 16 northern tract set for Aug. 19, and a groundbreaking slated for Aug. 29.

Approval of the master plan is the last requirement before the IDA and Medient sign the lease agreement for more than 1,500 acres of land.

“It’s another big step, in a long series of big steps, that are required for a very big project,” IDA Chairman Dennis Webb said of the property committee’s recommendation. “It’s a big trigger. It’s a big step forward.”

Said IDA CEO John Henry: “It sounds like we have a game plan for everything.”

Medient CEO Manu Kumaran and engineer Chance Raehn of Integrated Science and Engineering laid out what the first phase of the studio’s development will entail and what it could need. Phase 1 includes roads, utilities, a suspension bridge, a reception building, the movie studios and an outdoor filming location and the Leaf, a 25,000-seat leaf-shaped amphitheatre.

“We’re ready to start work,” Raehn said, adding they could start work within four months.

The largest concerns with the first phase are the projected water and sewer needs and how those are accommodated. Before Medient entered into a memorandum of understanding for the I-16 property, the IDA had projected building a package wastewater treatment plant on the site. Raehn said they could complete the first phase and need only an on-site septic system.

“We know what’s going to happen in phase 1, and that simplifies some of our problems,” Webb said. “Obviously the water-sewer facility is a big issue and it’s going to take a long time to construct. If we can get away with not doing that until phase 2, it eases a lot of issues.”

The IDA also has 150,000 gallons per day allotted in a groundwater withdrawal permit for the tract and erected a storage tank last year. A permanent well still needs to be drilled, and Raehn said he will ask the project’s general contractor if temporary wells would suffice for construction needs.

“It is a team effort,” Raehn said. “Everyone here has a vested interest.”

Where the permanent well, wastewater treatment plant and sprayfield are to be built still remains to be worked out. But those issues aren’t expected to delay the first phase.

“The real water and sewer issues will come in phase 2,” Kumaran said.

The well could take six months to put in, and the treatment plant could take a year for construction.

“Right now, the well is the only infrastructure that could be a timing issue,” Raehn said. “The wastewater treatment plant, we have a little bit of time on that.”

The third phase includes a 100-acre botanical park, which could benefit from reuse water generated by the treatment plant.

Among the buildings planned for the second phase are a parking structure, retail, housing, Medient corporate offices and permanent sets. The third phase is projected to include a boutique hotel, the botanical park and more housing.

A one-way entrance off Bay Road is planned, with a one-way exit onto Old River Road. The interchange at I-16 and Old River Road, which had been part of the project list for the failed regional transportation special purpose local option sales tax, could be improved through federal and state funding. Improvements to Old River Road beyond the off-ramp to accommodate the project’s traffic flow will be a locally-funded effort.

Vehicle traffic on the property itself will be restricted severely, with no vehicles permitted past a certain point. Once the project is finished, Kumaran said most of the traffic will be contained within the property and that the heavy traffic flow will be only when large events are held at the Leaf.

“It’s special event traffic,” he said. “Those big numbers are going to happen, best guess, once a month. Everybody who works there, lives there. They are not going to be driving cars.”

A development of regional impact application also must go through to the Coastal Regional Commission, and Henry said they will look at the project’s traffic.

Plans for the interchange at I-16 and Old River Road could be done by the first quarter of fiscal year 2014, temporary county administrator Toss Allen said.

“They can’t move with funding until they have plans,” he said. “The project as conceived is moving forward. This project has some state involvement, and that will help it get traction.”

IDA member Dick Knowlton said Monday’s meeting helped all parties understand what will happen next and will need to take place for the rest of the project’s phases to push forward.

“Right now is the time for everybody to understand what the situation is,” he said. “As we go forward, we become more and more obligated and committed. It’s much easier to talk through everything, if anyone has any questions, at this stage. The hard things can get fixed now. Three months from now, if there are surprises, it makes the relationship awkward.”