VENICE -- The Sarasota County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved filing a lawsuit against Sanborn Studios over unkept promises to create jobs.
The Lakewood Ranch-based film production company had been required to add 117 jobs with an average wage of $72,000 by Sept. 2, 2013 in return for $650,000 in incentive money, according to a financial incentive agreement signed in 2010 between Sarasota County and Sanborn Studios.
If Sanborn Studios could not create all the positions, the company was obligated to reimburse the county $2,992 for each unfulfilled job.
County officials say Sanborn Studios has not created any jobs since the agreement was inked, and, in turn, Sanborn could owe more than $350,000.
"We believe at this point
it would be in the county's interest to proceed to file a lawsuit to enforce terms of the financial incentive agreement," Stephen DeMarsh, county attorney, told the commission.
The board approved the recommendation in a matter of seconds.
In a statement, the company contends it provided evidence to the county last year that it "directly created approximately 200 full-time positions and indirectly created hundreds of others -- more than enough jobs projected under the County's contract with the start-up studio."
Sarasota's efforts to reclaim the incentive money are "ethically and morally reprehensible," Ken Sanborn, CEO of Sanborn Studios, said in the statement.
Commissioner Joe Barbetta declined to comment on the suit after the meeting. "It's pending litigation. We don't comment on it," he said.
In 2012, Sarasota County shifted to a pay-for-performance method for doling out incentive money. Instead of granting all the funds up front, the county now gives out money after jobs are created.
Commissioner Nora Patterson also declined to comment on the lawsuit but allowed that the county should have operated on a pay-for-performance basis all along.
"I wish we had started that way, but the economy was poor," she said, adding that the area needed job growth.
The lawsuit will be filed "soon," but an exact date has not been determined, said county spokesman Curt Preisser.
Calls to Sanborn and Karinne Behr, the company's president, were not returned. But in his statement, Sanborn blamed Sarasota for the situation.
"The county is sending a very clear message to all businesses that Sarasota is a dangerous place to do business," Sanborn's statement read.
"Sanborn Studios will defend itself against the County's imminent lawsuit, and will consider all options to defend itself again (sic) misinformation and malicious behavior directed against the company," the statement says.
The company's first major pilot, "Miami 24/7," went into production in November 2010. Two reality TV series and two independent films were also lined up, but after stalled production dates, the projects never materialized.
In Tuesday's statement, the company said it produced a project called "Plane Extreme" that aired on the Weather Channel, and a feature film, "Wind Walkers," shot last year in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Sanborn Studios requested $500,000 from Sarasota County in February 2011 after already receiving the $650,000 grant in 2010, but withdrew its request a day later.
In the statement released Tuesday, Sanborn contends "Sanborn Studios refused in 2011 to take more money from the County," and claims that was when "the campaign, later called a 'blacklisting' of Sanborn Studios by some in the industry, launched."
Sanborn and Behr terminated the lease for their Lakewood Ranch facility at 7321 Trade Court in December 2011.
"Sanborn Studios, LLC, will remain in business working on commercials and entertainment shows from its Sarasota operation," Tuesday's statement reads.
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.