What happens to an underserved, low-income neighborhood when a nearly 70,000-square-foot cinema complex moves in? According to Maya Cinemas founder Moctesuma Esparza, the answer is a cascading effect of new jobs, economic growth, neighborhood revitalization, and a strengthened sense of community.
“The movies bring people together,” said Esparza. “But for underserved neighborhoods — particularly Latino neighborhoods — local movie theaters have all but disappeared, leaving a void in what was once a wonderful communal experience.”
Esparza — the Mexican American film producer of Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War” and the biopic “Selena” starring Jennifer Lopez — started Maya Cinemas in 2000 with the goal of bringing the theater experience back to Latino communities.
His vision became reality when Maya Cinemas opened the doors of its first location in Salinas, California, in 2005. The premiere project was financed by Wells Fargo’s Community Lending & Investment group through a combination of new markets tax credits and bank-provided financing.
Now, more than a dozen years and six cinemas later, Maya Cinemas has expanded outside of California for the first time, opening its newest location in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in January 2019. The company once again turned to Wells Fargo for the debt and equity to finance the 14‑screen theater and 67,000‑square‑foot cinema complex that will eventually house restaurants and retail establishments.
“As a catalytic commercial anchor, Maya Cinemas plays an important role in the revitalization of its properties and surrounding areas,” noted Esparza. “The movie theater draws people to the location, which creates a marketplace for additional businesses and the foundation for sustainable community growth.”
As it takes root in each new community it serves, Maya Cinemas not only brings new jobs and career opportunities to local residents — it employs more than 350 people across all six locations — it also shows special open‑caption screenings for the deaf community, provides monthly free movie tickets for children with special needs, and offers discounted screenings for seniors. Each year, Maya Cinemas also awards monetary scholarships to local high school students and hosts film festivals where aspiring filmmakers can showcase their work.
“In the old days, the local movie theater was this magical place where communities came to meet and enjoy themselves,” said Esparza. “That’s what we focus on with each Maya Cinemas location — bringing people together.”
How tax credits help revitalize economically distressed communities
While affordable housing programs are critical to providing safe and accessible residential options in low‑income neighborhoods, they are often developed in locations where there aren’t enough available jobs, public transportation is limited, and things like fresh food grocery stores and family‑friendly entertainment are lacking or nonexistent.
To help improve these conditions, the U.S. Treasury’s New Markets Tax Credit program incentivizes business and real estate investment in these low-income communities via a federal tax credit.
“In the old days, the local movie theater was this magical place where communities came to meet and enjoy themselves. That’s what we focus on with each Maya Cinemas location — bringing people together.”
— Moctesuma Esparza
“While location can qualify a company for new markets tax credits, demonstrating a commitment to improving the lives of people in these underserved communities is what often separates the projects that get chosen in what can be a very competitive process,” said Tracy Burton of Wells Fargo’s Community Lending & Investment group. “Maya Cinemas sets itself apart with its mission-driven focus, specifically how it treats its employees — hiring local residents, offering employment benefits like health care and retirement, and providing opportunities for career advancement.”
New markets tax credits have proven a critical financing tool for Maya Cinemas, noted Burton, specifically in filling gaps in project development costs that may have prevented Esparza from ever realizing his dream of using movie theaters to drive economic revitalization of Latino neighborhoods.
The company is not alone: From 2003 to 2015, $42 billion in direct new markets tax credit investments were made in businesses and revitalization projects in U.S. communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, helping generate more than 1 million jobs.
In addition to larger, high-impact real estate development projects like Maya Cinemas, Wells Fargo also uses new markets tax credits to help smaller community-focused projects — including child care centers, health care clinics, and community art centers — secure funding and bring their much-needed services to low-income neighborhoods.
“For smaller or newer companies that qualify, Wells Fargo is able to offer a tax credit that helps them along the way — it often makes a project happen that otherwise maybe wouldn’t have,” Burton said. “Our ideal case with New Markets deals — when we are trying to help a company or concept get off the ground — is that by the next time they need access to capital, they qualify for traditional financing.”