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San Juan County Commission slated to discuss purchase of Totah Theater


Building's role in attracting film productions is unclear

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Plans by San Juan County officials to open a facility designed to help lure more film productions to the area could take an interesting twist in the days ahead, as the San Juan County Commission will discuss the possible acquisition of the Totah Theater during its March 11 meeting.

According to a meeting agenda posted March 5, a discussion of that potential deal will take place in a closed session and is listed simply as "Acquisition of Film Studio Property."

But an accompanying email from San Juan County spokesman Devin Neeley confirms the property in question is the Totah Theater, located at 315 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington.

The potential deal also is listed in the new business section of the agenda, indicating commissioners could move to act on the item after discussing it privately.

Neeley's email indicated the county had no other comment on the pending acquisition or plans for the property. But it did say more information could be expected during the meeting and after the commission takes action on the agenda item.

San Juan County has been exploring options for opening a film production facility since early last spring, when it received $1 million in capital outlay funding from the Legislature that was earmarked for such a project.

The county was awarded another $500,000 in capital outlay funding for the project by lawmakers during this year's session, although Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not yet signed the measure. She has until March 11 to do so.

That total of $1.5 million could be used to acquire, renovate or outfit a structure that could be used for a variety of filmmaking-related purposes, including serving as a soundstage where interior scenes could be filmed. The facility also could be used as office, meeting, editing or storage space for film production companies.

It is unclear how the possible acquisition of the Totah Theater would fit into the county's plan to open such a facility. The landmark theater is approximately 70 years old and originally served as a movie theater before being converted into a multiuse facility in the 1980s.

These days, it is used only on an infrequent basis, mostly as the home to the Farmington-based Theater Ensemble Arts theater company, which stages a handful of productions each year on its stage. The Totah also plays host to periodic concerts, film screenings and other special events.

Neeley declined to elaborate on the county's plans for the theater in a phone call with The Daily Times on March 6, referring to his email statement from a day earlier.

But he did say the county's decision to seek an additional $500,000 in capital outlay funding for the film production facility came after officials realized their original allocation of $1 million was insufficient for what they had in mind.

"We found that if we were trying to make a facility that was truly attractive to Hollywood, that wasn't enough," he said. "Lawmakers were gracious enough to agree with us and provide us with that funding."

A new use for the theater could play a significant role in efforts to revitalize downtown Farmington, which is undergoing a facelift through the Complete Streets program. Much of Main Street through the district is being rebuilt to include traffic-calming measures, landscaping and larger sidewalks as part of an effort to make it more attractive and pedestrian friendly. But city spokeswoman Georgette Allen said March 6 city officials had nothing to share on the speculation surrounding the theater.

According to The Daily Times archives, county officials also have been examining the possibility of purchasing additional land to serve as a backlot where additional sets could be built, perhaps a replica of a town or a specialty setting that would attract film productions with specific needs.

San Juan County officials and officials from local municipalities are hoping to make the area more attractive to filmmakers as a means of diversifying the local economy, especially after state lawmakers last year improved the tax incentives for film projects shot outside the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, which is abuzz with film and television production activity.

Two large-budget productions that shot footage in the county in 2019 — "Jumanji: The Next Level," which was released late last year; and "Bios," a sci-fi tale starring Tom Hanks that is due for release in October, reportedly spent millions of dollars during their short stays here.

The County Commission will meet at 4 p.m. March 11 in the commission chambers at the San Juan County Administration Building, 100 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/216TU0e