The pitch sounds like a Hollywood script: Take a blighted swath of East Baltimore, turn it into a campus for students interested in film, television and other media, and watch it become a magnet for young creative minds.
This is the vision being pushed by a group of developers for the site of the Goetze meat factory on East North Avenue, just south of Lake Clifton/Eastern High School.
For several months, the group has been meeting with college administrators, state and city officials and foundations to drum up interest in the estimated $450 million project. It is more than twice the public investment needed for the proposed East Baltimore biotechnology park.
Despite the large price tag and the high-crime location the project's backers are winning qualified support from influential quarters, including representatives of the Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Last month, the developers secured the historic landmark designation needed for the tax credits they say will help pay for the project.
And next week, they are to meet with UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III to invite the university to be the academic co-sponsor of the campus.
"This could happen," said Arthur Bugg, director of the Baltimore Cable Access Corp., an organization based at Coppin State College that would be the school's primary sponsor. "This thing could be a part of the Baltimore landscape."
Bugg, along with developers Charles Jeffries and Jerry Lymas and contractor Henry Lewis, whose company recently restored Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, are eyeing the plan.
It calls for turning the vacant Goetze factory, which is owned by Lewis, into the "Media Network School."
The school would draw 1,800 students from area colleges to spend two semesters studying film, television or other media in fully equipped studios. The students would live in renovated rowhouses near the factory. Film and television professionals and visiting professors from area colleges would teach the classes. Supporters of the project hope students would sell their works to film and television companies, giving Baltimore a bigger stake in the lucrative entertainment industry.
"The young people I foresee participating will be very creative. I definitely anticipate they will be creating content," Lymas said. "This is sort of like the New York University film school, but here in the mid-Atlantic area."
Jeffries added: "The entertainment industry is a growth industry. Where does a kid at a current university have an opportunity to make a feature film that could possibly get picked up somewhere else?"
Jeffries, who is leading the push for the school, argues that the proposed school can be built without direct public funding. He suggests that the Baltimore Cable Access Corp. could, as a nonprofit organization, issue bonds guaranteed by whatever college is selected as the academic sponsor.
The cost would be defrayed, he said, through a mix of federal historic tax credits and New Markets tax credits intended for depressed areas. Students would have to pay about $600 per month to cover the rest of the construction cost, on top of the tuition that would be paid through their college.
The financing plan raises eyebrows among officials familiar with Jeffries' past projects, including an ambitious plan a few years ago to turn 380 rundown rowhouses near the Goetze factory into 190 luxury homes priced at about $200,000.
The $35 million project, which had been hailed by Mayor Martin O'Malley and others, foundered. Only seven homes were rebuilt and Jeffries faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits from homebuyers, suppliers and lenders.
Jeffries said last week that his housing plan stalled because it took too long to obtain the landmark designation that would give the project the tax credits needed to make it profitable. The failure should not be held against the school proposal, he said.
"I am not bringing any of my financial baggage to the project," he said. "Sure, we've had financial problems, but many developers do. ... We're doing deals where angels fear to tread."
Bugg, who teaches Coppin State students at the cable access station, said he was untroubled by Jeffries' past. "I've asked others in the development business how [the failed project] reflects on his character, and what they told me it is not unusual, that it's the nature of the business," he said.
Faculty and officials at area colleges who were approached with the proposal were mostly unaware of Jeffries' background and were cautiously optimistic about the idea.
"From what I've seen, it looks impressive and could be important," said Peter Decherney, associate chairman of the graduate communications program at Johns Hopkins. "There is a lot of exciting film work being done around Baltimore, and it would be great if there was something that started to pull these resources together and build a real film community."