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Lights, camera, action at Chisholm City Hall

CHISHOLM -- As business continues as normal on Chisholm City Hall's main floor, Jerry Seppala opens a door in the basement to an empty, cavernous space that once housed a hockey rink and a curling rink. The expansive, bare room, a leftover remnan...

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Jerry R. Seppala, CEO of Ironbound Studios Minnesota, talks about his plans to convert the Chisholm City Hall into a film studio. The plan includes making soundstages out of this groundfloor space that was originally a hockey rink. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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CHISHOLM - As business continues as normal on Chisholm City Hall's main floor, Jerry Seppala opens a door in the basement to an empty, cavernous space that once housed a hockey rink and a curling rink.

The expansive, bare room, a leftover remnant of the building's original purpose of a recreation center, provides the open space and high ceilings needed for a film studio. Mirrors for makeup have been placed in a room off the former hockey rink area. A room overlooking the rink has been transformed into a break room. Additional rooms provide offices, a green room and a wood shop to create sets. The building's loading docks will also be handy in moving sets when needed, Seppala points out.

Months of renovations have changed the former recreation center space into Ironbound Studios Minnesota.

At 28,000 square feet, Ironbound is the largest film studio in Minnesota. Seppala, Ironbound's chief executive officer and a Wayzata, Minn., resident, hopes that one day it will also be Minnesota's largest studio in terms of the volume of work it brings in.

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Although Ironbound began its occupancy in the City Hall building Oct. 1, the studio has been in the works for years. Seppala, wanting to transition from his work as a political fundraiser to his interest in film and TV, turned to the Iron Range, where his father grew up in Virginia and his father's family still resides.

While scouting possible locations for a studio, Ironbound wanted to purchase Chisholm City Hall, but its availability wasn't apparent. Former Duluth Mayor John Fedo, now an economic development consultant, helped work on a lease-purchase agreement with the city.

"What's exciting about it is we're taking an old building and breathing some life into it," Seppala said.

The studio will create jobs for the area, and the renovations have already provided work, Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich said.

"It's been really an exciting time for the city. We're looking forward to seeing the first movie being filmed," Jugovich said. "We've had a number of local contractors put to work - electrical, construction, plumbing, you name it - Ironbound's had them in to upgrade the building. That's always a good thing when you have a building that's 100 years old and it needed a little breath of fresh air."

The agreement allows Chisholm to possibly construct a new City Hall that can better fit city government today than the existing building, Jugovich said. If the city doesn't find a spot for a new city hall, the agreement allows it stay put.

The city is moving slowly to consider possible designs and locations for a new City Hall.

"It's something that I feel we're going to end up coming out in a good position because we do need a new building. At the same time, if we stay there, Ironbound has been very gracious at working with us," he said.

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Meanwhile, the former curling rink is providing storage for boxes of items used by United Way's Buddy Backpack program, which gives children at risk of going hungry on weekends a backpack full of food to take home with them. United Way was using the space before Ironbound occupied it and is welcome to use the space for as long as it wants, Seppala said. Jugovich said Seppala has been working well with United Way to ensure that everyone's needs are met.

"We want to be a part of the community," Seppala said.

Upcoming film projects

Ironbound has had its first casting call, and about 200 people turned out for it, Jugovich said. As a horror movie fan, he said he's looking forward to seeing the first one filmed at Ironbound.

"We're looking forward, as a community, to being the hub. We want to be the place where the movies are shot. We want to be the place where people can come and see a little bit of Hollywood shot in Minnesota," he said. "We couldn't be more excited about this whole opportunity."

Ironbound has four projects lined up so far for filming in February, March, May and June this year. The studio has enough space for six to seven projects to be in either pre-production, filming or post-production at one time, Seppala said.

Jugovich said he's looking forward to seeing what productions are filmed in Chisholm, which will mean jobs for the community.

"Right now we're having so many difficulties with mining, and everybody knows that we've had a number of layoffs. It's not just the mining jobs, there are a number of spin-off jobs with it. We have a number of people unemployed, and we want to do everything we can to give the opportunity to create jobs," he said.

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Additionally, Ironbound is renting office space to two production companies, a talent agency and payroll and insurance companies that cater to media productions.

"From the city's perspective, it's an opportunity for main street business," Fedo said, explaining that people working at Ironbound can walk from City Hall to nearby businesses to add to the economic impact.

Ironbound has letters of intent to film at the studio totaling $70 million worth of work. However, the film industry is "really fluid," and Seppala expects work totaling $20 million to $30 million to be done at the studio by the end of 2016.

When he announced that he wanted to open Ironbound in 2012, people were scouting northern Minnesota for 70 projects. However, the region lacked the infrastructure of equipment, crews and post-production facilities to make those projects a reality, Seppala said. Ironbound will fill that missing piece, he said.

The studio is working to get its name out there to bring in more work. Ironbound is planning to host a party at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival and will have representatives at film festivals in Berlin, Toronto and Cannes to sell the Iron Range as a filming location, Seppala said.

"We can do any level of production," he said.

Productions could be eligible for a 45 percent rebate on what they spend in the state if they film at Ironbound - 25 percent from the state's "snowbate" program and 20 percent from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board's program.

It's important to also create opportunities in northern Minnesota to train people who can work on a film crew, Seppala said. In addition to filming in northern Minnesota, a project can receive more of the rebate if its crew also lives in northern Minnesota. To address that, Ironbound is talking to community colleges about possible new programs to train for both on-screen and behind-the-scenes work. The skills also would be applicable in jobs outside of northern Minnesota if someone wanted to work elsewhere, Fedo said.

In addition to films, the sound stages can be used by ad agencies to film commercials. Seppala also hopes to have an episodic TV show film at Ironbound because that would provide consistent jobs, he said.

"If it happens, its economic impact would be huge for this area," he said. He added that he wished Ironbound had the studio space ready when Fox was looking for a location to film its TV show "Fargo."

From politics to production

Seppala began his work in the state's film industry when he was hired as a fundraising consultant for the Minnesota TV and Film Board in 2001. Minnesota had "a great run" for filming in the 1990s, but then it started to lose the industry because Canada's incentives became better than Minnesota's, he explained.

After Sept. 11, the board lost the financial backing of a major sponsor who was hurt by the terrorist attacks. Seppala didn't have any experience in film production, but Craig Rice, who had been hired at the same time as Seppala, did have that experience. They decided to produce films and give the fees they received to the film board.

Seppala declined the offer to form a production company in 2008 because at the time, he was hired to fundraise for U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor's campaign. However, several years later, he decided he wanted to transition from his career in political fundraising to production work.

Doing so on the Iron Range was a natural fit with his family's background. Seppala said he wants to bring what he can to the Range.

"I've been going to the Iron Range my whole life," he said.

Related Topics: IRON RANGE
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