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San Juan County Commission buys downtown theater, launches Totah Studios


Facility will be renovated and used for variety of purposes

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Plans to better position San Juan County to attract film and TV productions took a major step forward on March 11 as the County Commission approved an agreement to purchase the historic Totah Theater in downtown Farmington.

Commissioners discussed the deal in a closed session before reconvening in an open session and voting to approve the deal. Commissioner Jack Fortner said the county is buying the theater for its appraised value, which is slightly more than $300,000, from Taylor LLC.

The money for the purchase is coming from $1.5 million of capital outlay funding from the state approved over the last two legislative sessions. The balance of that funding will be used to renovate the Totah Theater and construct a film backlot on a 120-acre site owned by the city of Farmington.

Together, the theater and the backlot will comprise an entity known as Totah Studios, which will be operated as a partnership between the county and the city.

"We're excited for a number of reasons because it means the mayor of Farmington and the city realize how important this partnership is," Fortner said.

Fortner said the theater — which will be deeded to the City of Farmington when the renovation is complete and managed as an extension of the Farmington Civic Center — will serve not only as a production hub, but as a social hub of downtown. The facility will be available to film and TV producers to use for auditions and office space, but the building also will be used to train local film and TV crew members. And it will continue to be used for live music and theater productions, as well as film screenings.

The theater was built in 1949 and seated 500 people in its original configuration. It was renovated into a live events venue in the 1980s, but a great deal of work must be done to prepare it for its new role. Fortner said office space will be renovated, the building must be brought up to ADA compliance, and major infrastructure systems such as plumbing, electrical, lighting, fire suppression, and heating, cool and ventilation must be updated.

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The work will begin in June, and county officials anticipate having it done by the end of the year. Fortner said the project will coincide with the second phase of the city's Complete Streets downtown renovation project, which also is scheduled to start in June.

The sale of the theater has not been completed, but Fortner said his understanding is that Taylor LLC has accepted the county's offer, and he expects the deal to close by the end of May or the beginning of June. He said a handful of events already were scheduled at the theater over the next couple of months, and those commitments need to be honored before the deal can be wrapped up.

As a Farmington native, Fortner said he feels a kinship to the Totah Theater and is excited to see it spring back to life.

"I watched Elvis Presley and the Three Stooges (movies) there," he said.

A slice of the Middle East in the middle of San Juan County

The second element of the Totah Studios arrangement will be the backlot, which will be located at a city-owned site near Jackson Lake and N.M. Highway 170 north of Farmington. A group of approximately five buildings will be constructed to serve as a movie set, with the idea that they can represent everything from a Middle Eastern community to a Native American pueblo setting.

Fortner said county officials chose to invest part of the capital outlay money in that project on the strong recommendation of their consultant, former New Mexico Film Office locations manager Don Gray.

"We asked Don Gray, 'What can we do to make ourselves attractive to the film office?' and he said, 'The number one request I get is for a Middle Eastern village,'" Fortner recalled. He explained that Gray compared the current popularity of Middle Eastern settings among film producers to the high demand for jungle settings in the 1980s and 1990s when dozens of Vietnam-related films were being shot.

"That terrain is an ideal match" for a film set in the Middle East, Fortner said.

Designs for the backlot are nearing completion, he said, and he expects work on that project to begin soon. Fortner did not have a projection for when the backlot would be ready for use.

The decision to purchase the Totah Theater and construct a backlot represents a major departure from the original idea for using the capital outlay funding, Fortner acknowledged. Originally, county officials planned to open a studio production facility — essentially a large, empty warehouse with high ceilings that could be adapted to shoot interior scenes and used for office, meeting, editing and storage space — in a vacant existing structure or build a new one.

Fortner said county officials examined several buildings, but none of them were really suitable for that purpose, or affordable. After huddling with their consultants, including Gray, Fortner said county officials came to believe the wisest course of action would be to invest the money in the theater and the backlot. He said if a film production outfit has need for a warehouse-like structure, the county can make the McGee Park Memorial Coliseum available to them.

Related: Governor touts San Juan County's potential to draw film projects

Fortner doesn't necessarily view the creation of the Totah Studios project as a game changer, but he said it will keep San Juan County very much in the hunt as it tries to attract more film projects with a budget of $3 million to $10 million. If it can regularly attract films in that range, he said, then it has the potential at some point to land a $100 million blockbuster — the kind of project that would have an enormous financial impact on the county.

If that were to happen, he said, it would be time for local officials to begin considering making additional investments in film industry infrastructure. For now, he believes San Juan County has taken a good first step toward putting itself on the radar of film and TV producers.

"This is another thing San Juan County and Farmington need to be doing to work on economic diversity," he said.

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