'Time to stop lamenting and start moving,' says Marin economic leader

NOVATO -- The sudden announcement last week that Disney will be shutting its 450-employee ImageMovers Digital animation studio could act as a wake-up call to Marin County, said the head of the newly formed Marin Economic Forum.

Walt Disney Co. said it will honor its lease until it runs out in 2013, but the facility at Hamilton Landing will be shut down by the end of the year.

"The fact that we have a timeline to work with is encouraging," said forum head Robert Eyler, chair of economics at Sonoma State University.

"We have from now until December to fill the breach in both space and capital."

The closing, he said, underlines the need for Marin to have a county-wide plan for the sudden migration of both large and small companies.

"We saw it happen when Lucasfilm left for the Presidio five years ago, and we've seen it all along as manufacturers needing expansion space move away."

It was two months ago that the economic forum, a public-private partnership between businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments and the county of Marin, came into being to address those kinds of issues.

"It's time to stop lamenting and start moving. Otherwise Marin will be regarded as lacking the fire power to attract and keep these kinds of businesses," he said.

Disney's decision to shut its Hamilton studio appears to be the result of corporate business, not disappointment with the location, said Michael Barker, CEO of the real estate development company Barker Pacific Group, which oversees leases at Hamilton Landing.

He said he's sure that Disney will honor its lease on the 120,000 square feet in two redesigned hangars.

"It's a very upstanding company. We'll just have to wait and see if it has plans to sublease the space after ImageMovers leaves," he said.

ImageMovers Digital, which had a smaller footprint in San Rafael before joining Walt Disney Co. seven years ago, could possibly sublease some of the space.

"There are a number of small film studios in the county, people who were connected with Lucas Arts, that might be interested," said Dr. Eyler.

According to Haden Ongaro of Cornish and Carey, a longtime broker for Hamilton Landing, the two hangars were outfitted with state-of-the-art film rooms, back-up power generators and other amenities that could attract film studios.

"There's a motion-capture sound stage, a theater, a model shop, a data center and just the overall aesthetic, with the control tower, makes it Hamilton's signature building," he said.

It was a shock to learn that Disney will leave, "but I applaud the forum for taking it as a wake-up call and wanting to take steps in a competitive market," said Mr. Ongaro, adding that he's eager to work with the group.

According to Dr. Eyler, Marin excels in housing companies in several target clusters: digital and creative arts; alternative and residential health care; green building, technology and financing and agricultural tourism in the west county.

And that doesn't even include the biotech cluster with BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, the Buck Institute and Raptor Pharmaceuticals, or business technology companies like Autodesk, ClairMail and Quadrant, he admitted.

Over the next couple of weeks the forum will be investigating whether some portion of ImageMovers can be persuaded to stay in the county, he said.

"It gives us an opportunity to find out what we can do, whether we and the county as a whole can pull it off," said Dr. Eyler.