PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The county's Economic Development Council president said Monday he would not have signed off on the Digital Domain deal had it not been for the state's money and assurance that it had vetted the company.
Larry Pelton said Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County had to follow suit and offer incentives and tax abatements after the state ponied up $20 million.
"I personally called (the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development) to verify that they had done their due diligence when they gave that grant," Pelton said. "And the person that I talked with at OTTED said, 'Absolutely.' "
Pelton said Digital Domain's decision to shut down the moviemaking part of its business at Tradition Studios Friday will affect local officials' future decisions regarding public incentives.
"I think very obviously this should certainly signal that there's no company out there that's worth that kind of money any more and taking that much risk," Pelton said.
In 2009, the Palm Beach Post reported that then-State Rep. Carl Domino asked Gov. Charlie Crist's office to stop payment on the studio. Dale Brill, then-director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, said the project had been thoroughly vetted. The office is now called the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Brill could not be reached for comment.
"When we found out that the governor was going to put $20 million, that just, to us, meant that this thing was really rock solid," Pelton said. "You have to think that. Why would they put their $20 million into it if they hadn't done their due diligence."
Pelton said when he looked into the company's finances in 2009, the company was profitable. He said he simply put the players in touch with one another, but came away impressed after listening to a presentation by John Textor, who resigned Friday as CEO.
Pelton was out of town Friday when the decision came down. He said he received no prior notice and has had trouble getting much information from Digital Domain since the decision.
"I'm totally shocked. I never expected anything like this to happen," Pelton said. "I'm very sympathetic to the employees who got laid off. The way Digital Domain handled this thing is beyond me. I've just never seen a project that was handled like this."
Pelton said he has been on the phone trying to determine Digital Domain's plans for the company and the building, and to see if anyone is interested in taking over the facility. Pelton said he has a call in to Florida Commerce Secretary Gray Swoope to discuss the possibility of bringing in a new tenant, and he has had discussions with site selectors and Enterprise Florida to find a solution.
Digital Domain laid off about 280 of its 300 workers in Port St. Lucie Friday while stating the company would continue to operate out of its California and Vancouver, Canada, offices as well as continuing its for-profit college in West Palm Beach.
The company announced in a notice to employees filed to the state at 8 p.m. Friday that it could not provide earlier notice because executives were in active negotiations to get more money that could continue operations.
"It became clear only in the last 24 hours that the financing would not come through and that the company would have to close this facility," stated the notice to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The decision leaves Port St. Lucie city officials in a lurch as they try to deal with a ding to the county's employment as well as a $3.7 million budget hole for next year if Digital Domain either doesn't pay or the city cannot find a new tenant. The city still owes about $38.4 million toward a 120,000-square-foot building in Tradition, just off Interstate 95.
Port St. Lucie also has given Digital Domain $7.75 million as part of a $10 million economic development grant, which is paid for by developers in the city's southwest annexed areas. The company promised to employ at least 500 by 2014.