If the saga of Augusta’s old jail were made into a movie - and if the title weren’t already taken - it could be called The Long Goodbye.
And the movie would make you feel like you’ve seen it before - because you have.
The leaky, moldy, mildewy Joint Law Enforcement Center at 401 Walton Way has been sitting empty since 2013. It’s just empty offices and empty jail cells.
So in 2017, the Augusta Commission planned to tear it down.
But in 2018, that plan was set aside to repurpose the jail into a badly needed Juvenile Justice Center for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
But last April, commissioners voted again to tear the jail down.
But last month, commissioners voted again to spare the jail for a year to examine the possibility of repurposing it into a film set. Apparently, the building’s realism as a jail is attracting movie crews to Augusta who want to make movies set in jails. Supporters also floated the idea of making the jail campus partly a movie set and partly working Juvenile Court space.
But later last month, commissioners voted again to tear the jail down.
But then last week, commissioners voted again to spare the jail for a year to re-examine the possibility of repurposing it into a film set. This time, though, commissioners expressed that they don’t want juveniles in the facility because of environmental concerns.
Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen spoke to Augusta commissioners during their last meeting and built a persuasive case to set aside the jail for use by Hollywood. The facility has been a backdrop for three films so far and contract negotiations are brewing right now for a fourth film to be shot there.
“You have the potential to turn a former symbol of incarceration into a symbol of opportunity and hope,” Allen said.
The Augusta area already has attracted a lot of filmmakers - perhaps most notably Clint Eastwood, who spent time here in 2018 shooting scenes for his most recent movie, The Mule. The film-entertainment business has been so brisk around here that Augusta now has its own Film Office to handle the demand.
But the story of Augusta’s movie future has a statewide subplot that just started unfolding. There’s a conflict over exactly how successful Georgia’s film industry is. Some people’s numbers don’t match other people’s numbers.
The Georgia Screen Entertainment Coalition claimed Thursday that the state annually helps support an almost $3 billion film industry that keeps thousands of Georgians employed, thanks largely to a popular film tax credit that has enticed the entertainment industry out of Hollywood.
That was countered almost immediately by a report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, which accused the state departments of Revenue and Economic Development of (a) inflating the economic impact, and (b) exerting poor control over the tax credit program, thereby wasting millions of dollars. The accused departments defended themselves by saying its employees are overworked and lack proper resources to perform a better job.
That dispute brings the Georgia General Assembly into the picture. State legislators are convening its 2020 session in Atlanta this week amid a climate of budget cuts. Gov. Brian Kemp instructed state agencies to prepare budgets allowing for 4% cuts. Skeptics who think the film tax credit isn’t pulling its weight are expected to target it as a waste of money.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston sounds like he’ll bend a bit but not break. “If we need to make some changes, I’m happy to have some discussion about that, but I think it’s important that we come into this process being very clear that we’re going to continue that,” he said concerning the tax credit.
That’s a sound decision. On the state level, agencies definitely need to settle on the same set of numbers to gauge the film tax credit’s success. But we don’t think the disparity will be so great that the credit will be scrapped altogether. It’s already seen too much success and it has too much potential. Lack of demand certainly isn’t killing the program.
If anything, for its own health it appears the program needs to grow and to acquire the improvements its administrators say are missing. That means at the very least keeping it funded, not paring it back.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (as narrators used to say in the movies): Postponing the old Augusta jail’s demolition was the right decision.
Jennifer Bowen is film liaison for Film Augusta, a division of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. She has said that film crews using the jail have already made an estimated economic impact on the Augusta area of more than $1 million through food, lodging and hiring local staff.
And there are, so far, about 20 location managers for movies and television slated to tour the old jail this year. If they like it, that promises an even bigger economic impact.
As we’ve said before, if the old jail can actually turn a profit, let it. But local film-industry supporters have to help prove it.
The story of Augusta’s position in Georgia’s film industry doesn’t have an ending yet. The script is still being written - but with the right amount of prudent work, it could have a happy ending.
Read the original article in the Augusta Chronicle, here.