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Studio Plan Takes Center Stage In Westborough

BY

1/21/2013

Anton Nel, the man who wants to turn Westborough State Hospital into a film studio and mixed-use development, is a unique sort of developer for Central Massachusetts.

The South African native is at once a venture capitalist looking for Bay State tech firms that could change the way Hollywood does business, and a developer communicating a vision for the mostly vacant 650-acre parcel, where he wants to build a film studio, boutique hotel, retail and office space and upwards of 150 homes.

Nel is CEO of Diaspora Capital, which he said was founded two years ago in London and is in the process of registering here in the United States with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

He hopes to find a mix of digital media companies who could be tenants at the development — companies Diaspora may want to invest in.

Nel has met several times with Westborough officials in public meetings and has also networked with entrepreneurs in Boston and Central Massachusetts.

He said what he has found so far here in the state is "a gold mine," and that some tech firms don't realize what applications their technology could have for filmmakers. He said he's in preliminary talks with several companies, including one in Marlborough he would not name.

Nel moved to Hopkinton from California with his wife and children over the summer, and noticed the Westborough property one day on his way to play tennis.

He has worked in the film industry for years and said he has helped develop several studios — including one in Cape Town, South Africa.

In the first phase of the project, which could cost $35 million, Nel estimates, he would build a 90,000-square-foot warehouse with 55-foot-high ceilings and a wide-open layout, as well as several support facilities.

He wants each part of the development to be able to sustain itself economically, though he thinks the studio could help spur interest in the site from tenants or partners.

"I think the studio will be a trigger," Nel said.

A large warehouse would offer filmmakers a cheaper way to do their work than renting a traditional sound stage. And, should the film industry in Massachusetts go belly up, a warehouse could be converted to some other use, he said.

The warehouse sound stage is a relatively small component of Nel's plan, he is quick to note. A second phase could include construction of a boutique hotel in the hospital's 47,000-square-foot administration building, Nel said.

He said an upscale hotel could be a draw for actors who are used to being pampered as well as for area companies seeking a nice hotel for clients.

Other phases of the project would include retail space — Nel throws out the term "boutique" here again — new homes, office space, and possibly a movie theater.

In all, the hospital campus has more than 400,000 square feet of buildings.

Nel could not yet say how much the total project might cost, but he estimated it could take about seven years to build. But he said he's confident he can get the money to pay for it. He said he's talking with equity investors as well as with EB-5 visa specialists. The EB-5 program offers permanent residence to foreign nationals who invest at least $1 million in developments that create 10 or more jobs.

The little-known program, offered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, largely funded a $250-million expansion at Jay Peak Resort in Maine over the past five years, according to news reports.

Westborough officials badly want to see Nel's vision come to fruition, Town Planner Jim Robbins said, and have been nudging the state along, since it owns the site. An environmental review to search for any contamination on the 128-year-old property is underway.

Nel's is the first proposal to come forward for the hospital since it was vacated three years ago.

"I think the state realizes now that the property is marketable," he said.

Rachael Neff, a spokeswoman for the state's Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), said the environmental review, which began before Nel's proposal became public, should be complete by Feb. 1.

"We're currently in discussions to sell property to … Westborough," she said.

Besides a youth sports league that toured the hospital property, Nel's pitch is the only interest DCAM has seen in the property to date, Neff said.

Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, an economic advocate for the region, was happy to see Nel come forward with what Matthews called an "imaginative" and "bold" plan. Matthews is especially pleased that Nel seems to know a lot about the film industry.

"He seems to have a really diverse set of interests and experiences he's bringing to bear on this project," Matthews said. "The ultimate build-it-and-they-will-come approach is now what we're talking about here."

Nel said he's well aware that Westborough residents value the playing fields along nearby Lake Chauncy, as well as the lakefront. He said he would seek to enhance that area and build a park, garden and amphitheater for the public to use.

"I want it to be a destination, not an almost-private property," Nel said.

If Nel's idea becomes reality, his would be the second studio in Central Massachusetts.

Thirty miles up Interstate 495, in Devens, New England Studios is under construction and slated for completion this summer.

MJM Development is building four 18,000-square-foot sound stages, which can be combined or used separately, as well as support space, production construction facilities and other amenities.

The designer of the $30-million project, Gary Bastien, has designed a number of major Hollywood studio facilities. He's quoted on New England Studios' website as saying that the Devens facility will be "equal to, or better than any stages in Hollywood."

The studio has not announced any filmmaking deals yet, but is renting out lighting equipment and other gear while construction is underway.

How would the Westborough project impact the Devens project?

According to Nel, he would be able to charge lower prices at his studio because of the more economical warehouse layout he wants to utilize.

Chris Byers, director of studio operations for MJM Development, returned a reporter's call seeking comment, but could ultimately not be reached for comment by press time.