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Film studio getting set up in downtown Maple Ridge

Deals also in place for Albion ferry and bypass lands
John Wittmayer is set to convert the old bingo hall on 224th St. into a a working movie studio and offices.

The former bingo building with the peaked rooftop in the heart of Maple Ridge could soon be bustling again.

The Ridge Studios is setting up in the building on 224th Street, creating a film studio with portable sets to make it easy and convenient for film makers to capture certain scenes.

“We’ve sort of had a steady stream of inquiries. I think we’re going to have lots of productions here,” said John Wittmayer, with The Ridge Studios.

Wittmayer has been a film location manager for 20 years and says there’s a shortage of studio space for films being shot in Metro Vancouver.

“It will be a studio and production office space. Everybody sees how much filming goes on in Maple Ridge.

“We’ve already got people who are wanting to soft book.”

Wittmayer said the building was upgraded when Great Canadian Gaming Corp. used it for its community gaming centre and installed slot machines. Power supplies that were provided for the slot machines will be used for film production.

Finding appropriate locations for courthouses, police stations, mortuaries or CSI labs are hard to find.

“We have to go out and find those locations,” it’s difficult to get access to those.

“So the concept is to build those sets here and then it will be convenient for companies to come and to book them.”

Parts of the building will be upgraded, possibly extending the movie set outdoors on the west end of the building to provide a back alley or urban setting.

“I think it’s going to change the image of downtown Maple Ridge for the better.”

Part of the plan is to attract an anchor tenant in the film business on a sublease basis and there could be an educational programs offered as well.

He expects to be in the building long term, adding that the B.C. film industry can survive a high Canadian dollar and tax incentives from rival areas.

“I don’t think the industry is going to go away anytime soon. There may be the peaks and valleys. The fact is there’s a real need for studio space.

“I think it’s going to get so busy that it will easily be one company after the other. I’m already starting to get scheduling issues.”

Economic development manager Sandy Blue told Maple Ridge council Monday it’s a good use of the former bingo place.

“We’re so excited to see this in that part of our downtown.”

Last year’s film permit and licencing revenue for Maple Ridge doubled from a low of about $48,000 in 2013 to $106,000 in 2014.

While Target is closing its Canadian operations, leaving a large vacancy downtown, other properties in Maple Ridge are starting to move.

The former Albion ferries dock and parking lot on 240th Street and River Road is about to be sold.

Council soon will see a plan for the property involving a tourist use. That could be the start of a tourism-recreation cluster that could employ between 50 to 100.

“It’s big,” Blue said later.

Commercial realtor Bill Hobbs says negotiations are still going on and sales haven’t completed on that property.

“I don’t think that’s a fair statement to make at this point in time,” Hobbs aid about the sale of the Albion ferry property.

That land has been up for sale by TransLink since the Albion ferry closed in 2009.

The Ministry of Transportation property that straddles Lougheed Highway west of Kanaka Way also has a buyer, added Blue.

“A different group is bringing forward an application.”

She said the purchaser is a major developer who does both residential and commercial projects.

Hobbs said a buyer group is also interested in that property, but nothing has been completed.

Meanwhile, Blue says the proposal to build a hotel at the foot of 224th Street is back on track.

“We expect the project will be back before council with an application in the coming months.”

Seiko Huang’s plan for a 125-room hotel received third reading in March 2012.

Blue listed the new arrivals as part of a report from Maple Ridge’s strategic economic initiatives department.

The four-person department tries to draw new businesses to Maple Ridge so people have jobs closer to home and to broaden the tax base.

One company that’s expanding, with plans for more hiring, is food supplement manufacturer GFR Pharma. The company is located in Maple Meadows Business Park and now employs more than 100 people.

At the east end of Maple Ridge, Blue says Advanced Flow Systems plans to double its workforce of 70. The Kanaka Business Park at the north end of 256th Street is now 60 per cent leased.

Coun. Gordy Robson said Maple Ridge has a reputation for businesses not starting up once they have applied. He wanted to know if the department surveys businesses that leave Maple Ridge or close down, about the reasons for their departure.

The department doesn’t do that, but may do so in the future, Blue said.

“In the 1980s, we did that. It was very enlightening,” Robson said.

Last year’s value of industrial and commercial building permits issued in Maple Ridge plunged to $8.3 million, down from more than $25 million annually in previous years.

Coun. Tyler Shymkiw asked if lack of parking hurt Maple Ridge businesses, but Blue said for the most part, it’s not. People here expect to park close to the businesses they’re attending, he added.

Read wants to know how the department was doing in bringing major retailers or industries to Maple Ridge.

Blue said connecting with industry associations is one way.  Many buildings here, though, aren’t suitable for new businesses and require replacement or rebuilding, which adds to costs.

Coun. Craig Speirs suggested an “expedited permit process” be set up to speed up approvals.

Coun. Bob Masse wanted Blue to come back with comparable numbers on the numbers of businesses that fail within the first years in Maple Ridge compared to those outside of the city.