Sanborn, Facing Lawsuit, Calls Sarasota ‘Dangerous Place to do Business’

Sanborn Studios executive are responding to news Sarasota County will sue the company with harsh words about the future of the region. “The County is sending a very clear message to all businesses that Sarasota is a dangerous place to do business,” said Kenneth Sanborn, CEO of Sanborn Studios.

The relationship between Sarasota County and Sanborn Studios has gone from public embrace to friction-laced frustration over the course of four years. Sarasota County commissioners voted in October 2010 to authorize $650,000 in financial incentives to the company on the promise that Sanborn Studios would create 117 new jobs by Sept. 2, 2013 with an average wage of $72,029. According to a memo by County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, the studio has not provided documentation that those jobs were created. Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to sue the company to recover lost funds.

The action has prompted Sanborn officials to speak up for the first time in years about the state of the business. Sanborn spokesman Scott Sobel claims the company has lost $30 million in business investments, including $2 million from Sanborn himself, since Sarasota County in early 2011, “started and continued to attack the studios’ reputation and destroyed the studios’ ability to be profitable.

Interestingly, Sanborn officials say the friction with Sarasota started when the studio refused an offer for increased funding beyond the startup grant approved in 2010. The studio said the county at that time was eager to attract a film company after an embarrassing failure to woo Digital Domain to Sarasota; Digital Domain ultimately went to Port St. Lucie, where it is currently embroiled in its own lawsuit about incentives.

Sanborn officials say they provided evidence in 2013 that they had created 200 positions and indirectly created hundreds of others, many in other businesses. Projects in which the company was involved included the television pilot Miami 24/7Weather Channel’s Plane Xtremethe Sarasota and Manatee-filmed Wind Walkers and films produced in other areas including Ass Backwards and Unkindness of Raven.

It was through Wind Walkers that Sanborn officials say they learned of the “blacklisting” that Sarasota County officials were doing toward the company.

Sobel provided a letter from Sweet Tomato Films, which has produced the locally-produced Wind Walkers, in which producer Dori Sperko wrote that coin business with Sanborn Studios could hinder the ability to get other county incentives.

“The County’s prejudice against your company was extraordinarily evident,” Sperko wrote. “They questioned your invoices at least four times, making us provide evidence of your business license, questioning the amount of your charges, etc.”

Sperko said her company could not involve Sanborn in Sex Ed, the much buzzed-about Haley Joel Osmont film shot in the Tampa Bay area.

Of course, Sarasota County officials have expressed increasing frustration for years with Sanborn, as have numerous members of the filmmaking community almost since the announcement Sanborn would be coming to town.  A facility opened by Sanborn in Lakewood Ranch now houses a trampoline park, and the Sanborn hanger at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has not demonstrated any significant amount of activity.

Of note, Sperko’s letter notes equipment usage and support for projects, but does not not specify any number of jobs that might have been created directly or indirectly, a critical obligation of Sanborn in terms of receiving public incentives. The hope among film figures in the area was always that Sanborn could create a much needed network of production facilities and sound stages and create a basic infrastructure for the entire filmmaking community.

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