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Shuttered San Marcos recycling plant may be recycled as movie studio

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While it may not have been possible to turn trash into gold, the transformation of a failed San Marcos trash recycling facility into a five- or six-soundstage studio complex is moving closer to reality -- a decade after the original $134 million Thermo-Electron recycling venture was closed.

Originally conceived as a trash-to-energy facility that would have burned trash from the adjacent landfill to supply power, that proposal was shot down by the community, which later ended up opposing the large recycling plant as well. The San Elijo Road plant was doomed both because of opposition and the fact that it was a money loser from day one.

The recycling components of the facility were subsequently sold to a firm from Saudi Arabia.

There was at least one more issue to deal with -- the adjoining landfill that was also closed early in the face of community opposition.

When the county sold its trash system, operations and other landfills to Allied Waste for $184 million about 10 years ago, the sale included the 225,000-square-foot building where the recycling center was housed, but not the closed adjoining landfill.

Except for a brief failed manufacturing operation in the 1990s, the building has been vacant since.

It has been up to the county to cap and re-landscape the 100-acre landfill site and about $23 million has been budgeted thus far. Approximately 10 million tons of trash need the clay cap to be completely buried.

"The landfill was closed, but unfortunately was not capped," said Jim Ambroso, Allied Waste district manager.

It is also expected to cost about $23 million for Spirit Horse Productions' affiliate Alliance Holdings to acquire the main building and some smaller structures. It will cost about $60 million to build out the studio to its full capacity, including the acquisition of the building.

Spirit Horse Productions, which is in the process of moving from Long Island to California, wants the landfill to be capped before it starts work on a complex that will have five or six soundstages depending on the requirements.

In the six-soundstage configuration, for example, the sound stages would be 21,901 square feet, 19,952 square feet, 12,403 square feet, 27,359 square feet, 9,792 square feet and 9,936 square feet.

According to Irvine-based project architect Gary Bastien, who has designed soundstages for studios including The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) and CBS, the 27,000-square-foot soundstage will be among the largest in Southern California.

"When you have 27,000 square feet for a soundstage, that's big," said Bastien. "Sony Pictures has a 40,000-square-foot soundstage, but most are a lot smaller."

Bastien said people have the illusion the soundstages are larger because of the very high ceilings.

That 40-foot-high clearance makes the building ideal to convert for its future use, according to Bastien. Paige Neumann, Spirit Horse development director, agrees.

"This building (along with its high clearance) has 70-foot-high ceilings. That's very difficult to find," Neumann said

The project is planned to include a 20,000-square-foot office building with parking for 970 cars. Bastien also likes the fact that outbuildings on the site may be used for building sets and other construction.

The site's location next to a landfill might not be popular to everyone, but Bastien said the area is completely fenced off, making it ideal for a studio, which prefers to have secure perimeters.

Bastien said Spirit Horse has been very responsive and that the encouragement from the city of San Marcos and "one of the best climates in the world" should make the studio a success.

Spirit Horse may not be a household name, but it is far from an unknown quantity having produced films ranging from "Hidalgo" to "The Green Mile."

Spirit Horse is a small operation with only a 15-person staff, but Neumann said this swells to 300 people during production.

"And the good thing about film production is that even if something bombs, it's good for the community," Neumann said.

While San Marcos City Manager Rick Gittings says he will be very glad to be rid of the "white elephant" that the building has represented for so long, he doesn't pretend that the studios will be the answer to everything. "It will be a $50 million employment center that will serve a wide range of artists and artisans who may live in the North County, but I don't think it will mean all that much in direct financial benefit," he said.

Gittings did say that people from contractors to caterers will benefit, and yes, that all benefits the city. "There will be economic spinoffs," he said.

Neumann also noted that California State University San Marcos and Palomar College each have film departments that could share resources.

Neumann suggested the initial construction will start small with perhaps a couple of sound stages, and would be built out as needed over the next three to five years. She emphasized, however, that the soundproofing in the building is good enough that it could be used right now, but wants the work done first.

The San Marcos studios complex will also have dubbing suites large enough to provide the score for any film that might arise.

If all goes as Neumann would hope, the capping will be done and the facility could be handed over in August or September, with completion of at least the first soundstages by late in the summer of 2006.

Before that can happen, the city will have to amend a deed restriction for the site that identifies a trash recycling operation as the permitted use.

If initial reports are any indication, the city ought to be allowed to amend that permit without too much difficulty. Still, the Board of Supervisors as the arbiters of the county-owned landfill will have the final say on the status of the permit.

As for how much a new studio will mean to the local community, that is difficult to tell.

The San Diego Film Commission said the motion picture and television industries were a more than $40 million economic engine in the 2003 fiscal year, which was the latest available. This was down from about $50 million the year before. The Film Commission also tracks other film endeavors such as photo shoots, but they were not part of these totals.

The only other studio of any size here is Stu Segall Productions, which has produced movies such as "Bring it On" and television shows such as "Silk Stockings."

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