Jon Hendry is in his car driving from the Estancia shooting location of the indie film Fast Color to Albuquerque. When he gets there, the business agent for the local film techs’ union will do some work on the NBC drama, The Night Shift, which just wrapped its third season. There’s a location scout in Pojoaque after that, and the night will end with a visit to Longmire on-location shoots in Santa Fe.
That's a lot of windshield time, and lately Hendry has been using it to think about the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The for-profit college just let faculty, staff, students and the city know that it's closing up shop after the next academic year. The city owns the property and the buildings—and the $27.8 million left on the loan. Now that the demise of SFUAD is all but complete, attention has turned to the denouement.
"We're excited about this," Hendry says over the road noise on his end of a cell phone, his Scottish brogue tempered by decades spent in New Mexico. He's talking about the potential for the property near the corner of Cerrillos Road and St. Michael's Drive. "We could solve so many issues that we have in Santa Fe right now … and the city already owns it. How cool is that?"
Hendry is thinking in broad terms; turn a building into a huge pre-K space, leverage the state-owned Higher Education Center and nearby Santa Fe High School for a lifelong learning campus. But he's also thinking about film and television production.
"There's a huge shortage of studio space in New Mexico. It's just become almost ridiculous. We're losing business because of it," Hendry offers. He says Garson Studios at SFUAD could easily be expanded.
Eric Witt runs the Santa Fe Film Office, a joint city-county venture meant to promote Santa Fe's scenery, facilities and film crews. He says the school's film production capability is a tremendous asset. In fact, Witt says the entire property lends itself to the industry, which has ballooned in New Mexico since 2002.
"It's not like you're starting from scratch," Witt tells SFR of the school grounds. "It's basically upgrades and expansion. You don't have to sink a lot of money, because it's already there."
The 60-plus acre campus hosted the TV series Manhattan, which ran on WGN for two seasons, as well as Longmire, which is now in production for its final season. Witt says some of the sets from Manhattan are still stored on site. There's housing for crews, office space and the potential to grow and change all of it.
"It could be sort of a mini-lot, like Warner Brothers or Paramount, where you have all the production offices on site, the sound stage ..." Witt says, trailing off. He sees little trouble finding private money to do some, if not all of the work to get the property up to snuff. There's venture capital sitting on the sidelines for such facilities, he says.
What's more, the campus is a node for New Mexico's fastest internet connection network. The large-scale digital capacity needed for production and post-production, a segment of the industry that New Mexico sorely lacks, is already in place. Post-production work can be done anywhere, Witt points out, while noting burgeoning industries in Seoul and Singapore. He sees no reason Santa Fe can't compete. In fact, post-production work in New Mexico would qualify for the state's film and TV production incentives. In many places, including California, that's not the case.
"And that part of the industry brings Santa Fe what it wants in a younger, creative demographic," he says eagerly before he finally checks himself. "But the caveat to all that is it's not my say. The city could say it wants to put a shopping mall or a dog park there."
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, who has never been one to shy away from projects that may require a bit of doing between the vision and implementation stages, isn't moving quite so fast this time.
"The priority is to do everything we can to make sure that property continues to serve as an educational institution," Gonzales says on the phone from a break in this week's budget hearings. While SFUAD has told its students the school is shutting down, Gonzales says the university hasn't started the clock on the seven months' notice it would need to give the city to end its lease early. He's happy to allow some time to see if the school and the city can find a buyer that's committed to keeping the higher education mission of the campus.
"Having said all that," the mayor adds, "the Garson Studios are a big asset and an important part of fulfilling the vision we have for growing the film and television production industry in Santa Fe." Gonzales says that in his estimation, there's little taste in city government for just unloading the property to the highest bidder.
While it may be too early to sketch out plans for exactly what the campus could look like if it stopped being a school and started being something else, it seems likely that unless it can find a a partner to take over the campus and the $2.23 million annual lease payments, the city will eventually want to see someone's idea for what the university campus could be.