The RiverBend clean-energy and technology hub is doubling in size, giving state officials more room to work with as they pursue plans for one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories and try to lure other businesses to the complex.
By purchasing an additional 96 acres at the RiverBend site, the state will gain control over the entire 184-acre parcel and give it more room to accommodate its biggest potential tenant, SolarCity and its plan for a sprawling factory, as well as additional companies that might be interested in locating within the complex.
The RiverBend complex already was the biggest single piece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic-development initiative, with the state planning to invest $225 million to build and equip a factory for its first two tenants, solar panel manufacturer Silevo and LED lighting-maker Soraa.
Those plans changed dramatically in June when Silevo agreed to be acquired by SolarCity, the nation’s biggest installer of residential solar energy systems, in a deal worth as much as $350 million. SolarCity executives immediately said they wanted to vastly expand the scope of the Buffalo factory, making it five times bigger, with the capacity to make enough solar panels to generate 1 gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, of electricity.
“RiverBend is at the forefront of a development boom that has literally transformed Buffalo, and tech companies from across the country and around the world have taken notice,” Cuomo said in a statement.
“Finalizing this purchase agreement will ensure that RiverBend is prepared to capitalize on this interest.”
Under the deal announced Tuesday, the state agency overseeing the RiverBend complex agreed to buy the remaining 96 acres of property from the City of Buffalo for $2.8 million. The sale is expected to close within the next two months.
The new purchase will be added to the 88 acres at the former Republic Steel site that the state bought from Buffalo Urban Development Corp. in a $2.5 million deal that closed last week.
“This is a great, great deal for this community,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “It speaks to the attractiveness of Buffalo as an economic destination, and it speaks to the success of Gov. Cuomo’s economic-development strategy.”
Cuomo said Monday that he is optimistic that the state and SolarCity will reach an agreement on a package of additional incentives for the expanded factory that the company wants to build in RiverBend. The expanded RiverBend factory now is expected to employ well over 1,000 people, compared with 475 under Silevo’s original plan.
“What this sale does is keep the momentum going,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
“The fence-sitters, when they see the positive momentum, want to be part of a winning team. That’s what I’m seeing.”
The acquisition of the entire RiverBend site will give the state more flexibility as it works with SolarCity on plans for its massive factory. Plans for the solar panel production plant still are being developed, although state officials said they expect construction to begin this fall.
State officials hope that the solar panel factory will establish Buffalo as a center for solar module manufacturing, which could create the critical mass needed to attract suppliers and other businesses to support the solar energy industry in Western New York, making it a magnet for other businesses in the industry and for workers with expertise and skills.
Brown said the state’s interest in acquiring the remainder of the RiverBend site intensified after the deal between SolarCity and Silevo was announced.
“After the sale of Silevo, and with SolarCity having interest in expanding, this became even more desirable,” Brown said. “It provides the land that’s needed for the expansion of SolarCity.”
The purchase agreement also calls for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, for future project development on the newly purchased land if those developments are otherwise exempt from property taxes, ensuring a steady revenue stream for local municipalities regardless.
The purchase agreement calls for Fort Schuyler Management Corp., an arm of the State University of New York that is managing property purchases for the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, to acquire the land from the Buffalo Urban Development Corp.
In addition, under the agreement, the new projects must comply with state requirements that at least 20 percent of the contractors be minority- or women-owned businesses, that minorities and women must comprise at least 25 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of the construction workforce. The state also committed to work with local schools to create workforce training programs to increase opportunities for Buffalo residents, particularly women and minorities.
The state will also purchase and own equipment that the companies will use, while local colleges and universities will also have access to the facilities, equipment and partnerships. No direct state funding will go to any companies.
“There is a buzz throughout this dynamic industry about what’s happening in Buffalo and Western New York,” Alain E. Kaloyeros, CEO of the nanoscience college, said in the statement, “and adding more developable, shovel-ready acreage is a wise and prudent strategy.”