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New York digs Astoria Studios site

Mayor Bloomberg breaks ground in ceremony

The groundbreaking ceremony for Kaufman Astoria Studios’ movie and TV stage was brought to you by the mayor, the number 22 million and the letter K.

Standing next to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a hard-hat wearing Elmo presented a large plastic K to KAS owner George Kaufman and president Hal Rosenbluth, just before the crew grabbed shovels and tossed dirt into the air for the cameras. KAS estimates that Stage K will be completed in 2009.

The $22 million, 40,000-sq. ft. studio, dubbed Stage K, sits on 36th Street between 34th and 35th Avenues, right across from the main KAS complex where “Sesame Street” makes its home alongside such programs as ABC’s “Life on Mars” and Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.”

Bloomberg was upbeat during a speech about the stage’s significance, touting the city’s need for “a more diverse economy,” especially in the hard times ahead. The Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting (MOFTB) has tried to kickstart a resurgence in the New York entertainment industry with a series of grants and tax incentives such as the Made in N.Y. program for production companies working locally.

For the MOFTB, the groundbreaking represents a major victory in the effort to move more entertainment jobs to New York — the studio was funded with the help of a city grant of approximately $5 million administered through the NYC Economic Development Corp. (EDC), and $2 million in grants and loans from the New York state’s Empire State Development Corp.

The union of state and city interests is expected to bring about 400 new jobs to Astoria. Proponents hope that, as they encourage more TV shows and movies to shoot at KAS, job growth will radiate out across the borough and the city.

Objectively, KAS is a good place to do this. The studio, established in 1920 as Famous Players-Lasky (which would become Paramount), has old New York credibility and an established brand name in “Sesame Street.” Astoria is still working-class and multiethnic despite increasing gentrification, and the residential part of the neighborhood is close enough to the subway for more and more middle-class ex-Manhattanites priced out of their old apartments. In short, it’s one of the few commuter-accessible New York neighborhoods in which there’s still room for expansion.

Asked how to keep from becoming trapped in a “race to the bottom” between cities with competing tax credits, Bloomberg admitted that the MOFTB couldn’t keep on increasing tax incentives, but pointed to the city itself as the biggest draw — a place where filmmakers want to live and work. Addressing the issue of high union labor costs, Bloomberg said, “Union labor rates are higher, but they have people working there who are better-trained than anyone else, and ultimately, even though you pay more, you get more bang for your buck.”

The groundbreaking was a who’s who of the local political scene: Queens borough president Helen M. Marshall, MOFTB commissioner Katherine Oliver, NYC EDC prexy Seth W. Pinsky, and Empire State EDC prexy Marisa Lago were present alongside KAS resident producers.