Pension fund gift should prove to be first of many benefits to city from deal to build studio

In light of current economic conditions, the headline for last week’s $2 million donation by Unity Studios President Jimmy Lifton to the city of Allen Park’s pension fund could well have read, “Money falls from sky.”
That’s undoubtedly how it must feel for officials there who otherwise would have had to make up that shortfall in other ways, such as from the city’s general fund. The studio’s gift is the first of what promises to be a series of benefits to Allen Park and its residents — if and when the facility jumps through all the legal and procedural hoops into existence.
Many of those residents, as well as other observers, are skeptical of that ever happening, however. We can’t say we blame them.
First came Mayor Gary Burtka’s initial announcement of the project in January. That was followed in April by word from city and studio officials that the development would bring to town 3,000 jobs at which Allen Parkers would have the first shot. It’s easy to see how it might have seemed at the time to some like the city had won the lottery, been visited by Santa Claus, or both.
Their expectations crashed earthward, however, after learning at a June 3 public forum that in order to become qualified to be among those 3,000 employees for a given production, local workers would have to be trained in the film and TV production business — possibly by paying tuition to the Lifton Institute of Media Skills, which also is slated to operate on the 104-acre site.
Despite Burtka’s mention of the fact that the 3,000 jobs wouldn’t appear overnight, those ensuing announcements make the continued reservations of many about the project easy to appreciate — city and studio officials’ recent declarations of behind-the-scenes progress notwithstanding. Until several months into the process, neither Burtka nor Lifton had done much publicly to dispel the mistaken impression of some people that 3,000 permanent jobs were coming to Allen Park, and that most of those would go to city residents.
In our view, that’s too far along in the process for a reality check.
Recently, however, city and studio officials deserve at least some credit for trying to rein in expectations by explaining that while there will be about 3,000 people working at the facility at any given time, most of those will be paid by film and television program makers. They also have pointed out that the actual number of workers to be employed by Unity itself is about 83.
Now, while we understand that the latter number is a mere fraction of the former, remaining skeptics should consider the following question: How many local communities are able, right now, to announce the arrival of even an 80-some employee company within their boundaries in this near-depressionlike economy?
To be sure, there have been some missteps in the rollout process, not to mention some overly wishful thinking by some members of the community. We also acknowledge that the requisite seductive tax lures by local governments must be considered as part of the overall package.
And we’re really not quite sure what Burtka’s announcement last week that he’ll run for sheriff of Wayne County will mean to the whole process.
However, even when taking all those caveats into account, we also believe the Unity Studios complex ultimately will prove a huge positive locally at a time when it’s needed most. The changing but substantial number of employees from various productions will rotate in and out of the city and surrounding area, bringing economic activity — meaning they’ll spend money — that otherwise would have gone elsewhere.
And last week’s gift to the pension fund was, we hope, just the first installment on what’s to come.

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