PLYMOUTH, Mass. – In this place sometimes known as America's hometown, schoolchildren and tourists flock to see Plymouth Rock, a replica of the Mayflower and the place where the Pilgrims and Mashpee Wampanoags Indians shared the first Thanksgiving meal.
But the staid and historic image of Plymouth could soon be tempered by a decidedly modern attraction: a $488 million film and television studio, complete with 14 sound stages, a 10-acre back lot, a theater, a 300-room upscale hotel, a spa and 500,000 square feet of office space.
The thought of turning Plymouth into a movie Mecca has won the enthusiastic support of many residents, but some don't like the idea of adding Hollywood to their history.
"We don't need you; we've already got Plymouth Rock," says Laurien Enos, one of just three of 116 Town Meeting members who voted last month against allowing the developers to build the studio on a golf course here, about 40 miles south of Boston.
While Enos and others worry about traffic and Hollywood glamour changing their town, most residents have embraced the studio.
More than 1,100 people showed up at a recent jobs fair hosted by the project's developers.
"I think it's a great idea," said Renee Stoddard, a waitress at The All-American Diner. "It's going to bring lots of jobs and more people into Plymouth, and more business for us. It couldn't be a better time for that. We get plumbers and carpenters in here all the time and they're saying there's no work."
Even though construction isn't expected to begin until at least April once the final approvals are set — and the studio won't be ready before late 2010 or early 2011 — developers Plymouth Rock Studios LLC have pre-leased about 60 percent of the office space they'll need.
Led by David Kirkpatrick, a former president of Paramount Pictures, with Earl Lestz, another former Paramount executive, Plymouth Rock Studios doesn't yet have financing. And that could prove a major obstacle given the current economy.
But Joseph DiLorenzo, chief financial officer of Plymouth Rock Studios and former CFO of the NBA's Boston Celtics, is confident lenders will come through. He notes that the film industry — though faltering now — has weathered recessions before and that the project offers sound stages where filmmakers can do everything related to production, including editing and scoring.
"Now that we know we can build on it, we'll go raise money," said DiLorenzo. "We've had letters from HBO, Warner, Paramount and Fox, saying, 'If you build it, we will come.'"
Big-name producers and directors will come to Massachusetts because it offers filmmakers a sales tax exemption and a 25 percent tax credit for payroll and production expenses, DiLorenzo said.
For its part, in addition to a zoning change, Plymouth's Town Meeting gave the developers a 75 percent break on the studio's real estate taxes for the first five years. The exemption will gradually decrease over 20 years.
"We want to become the alternative to Hollywood for the film industry," said DiLorenzo.
That may be a tall order, given the competition Massachusetts faces from other states that also offer financial incentives, including neighboring Connecticut, which offers a tax credit of up to 30 percent for in-state production expenses, and Rhode Island, which gives a 25 percent tax credit on production costs for movies, videos or TV shows produced primarily in the state.
New York, which is widely seen as Hollywood's closest competitor, offers a 35 percent tax credit. And Michigan, also considered an attractive state for filmmakers, has begun refunding studios up to 42 percent of their in-state production expenses.
Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, calls the Plymouth proposal "enormously ambitious" but says Plymouth could be a big draw. The number of tourists visiting Plymouth has dropped in recent years from about 1 million a year to about 750,000.
"Plymouth is already a tourist attraction, and now, if you've got a place where people can visit the sets and take a tour of the back lots, it just enhances the tourist industry that's already there," Paleologos said.
Plymouth also is just 20 miles from picturesque Cape Cod, where ferries take visitors to the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, popular vacation spots for celebrities.
Since the first version of the incentive law went into effect in 2006, the state has seen a dramatic jump in the number of movies made here and the amount of money spent in the state by those productions.
The film industry spent about $6 million in Massachusetts in 2005 and $60 million in 2006. Direct spending more than doubled to $125 million in 2007, on eight major films, including: "The Women," starring Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, and "Pink Panther 2," starring Steve Martin. Direct spending is expected to double again this year to $350 million to $400 million on 10 films, Paleologos said.
DiLorenzo said the developers expect the project to create about 1,000 construction jobs and another 2,000 permanent jobs at the studio, which is to be built on the Waverly Oaks Golf Course in a rural residential neighborhood in South Plymouth. The group secured the rights to the name "Hollywood East" from the Hollywood, Calif., Chamber of Commerce.
Even people who work at the historic sites in Plymouth like the thought of a movie studio in town.
Ann Young, the director of visitor services at Pilgrim Hall Museum, which houses the largest collection of Pilgrim artifacts in the world, said she isn't worried the glitz of a movie studio could taint Plymouth.
"We're all thrilled about it," Young said. "I think that (the developers) are trying to do something new. They are like pilgrims coming to Plymouth to start something new."
But some think the town has rushed, blinded by the thought of movie stars walking down the street.
Ann Marie Flanagan, a Town Meeting member who voted against the proposal, said the developers have not answered key questions, such as how they are going to finance the project and how much they hope the town will contribute in infrastructure improvements.
"People are just mesmerized," Flanagan said. "They're dropping names like Julia Roberts, and saying you're all going to have jobs."
DiLorenzo said the development group couldn't seek funding until Town Meeting approved the zoning change. The project also needs to get a state environmental permit and state approval for an access road.
The developers have pledged to provide buses to take tourists from the historic sites in Plymouth to the studio.
"We think people will come here for the tax credits and for the location," DiLorenzo said. "You have the ocean, the hills, foliage, the city — it's all here."