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Giant drug factory planned for Dunkirk will extend the reach of the Buffalo Billion

The state’s plan to spend $200 million to build a high-tech drug manufacturing center in Dunkirk is a huge achievement for a Buffalo biotech firm and for Chautauqua County, where hundreds of jobs will be created.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s state budget proposal – which still needs legislative approval – includes funding for the project, as described by News business reporter Stephen T. Watson. The company, Athenex, is a specialty cancer drug company headquartered on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Athenex would invest hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money in the Dunkirk facility, exact location to be determined. As is the case with other Buffalo Billion projects, the facility will be built and owned by the state.

So far, the details remain sketchy, except that the budget line indicates the money would go toward a project “in Chautauqua County led by SUNY Polytechnic.” That is one of the agencies that administers the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

As stakeholders in that region have indicated, this could be a game-changer in a region heavily impacted by the closing of ConAgra plants in Dunkirk and Fredonia, and the potential mothballing of NRG’s Dunkirk plant.

Athenex is embarked on an ambitious expansion, in part through Asian investment. There are now more than 325 employees in Buffalo, New Jersey, Texas, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. The company plans to construct two drug manufacturing and distribution plants in the Chinese province of Chongqing. The Chinese government would spend $200 million, Athenex $75 million.

Athenex is one of those Buffalo stories worth retelling. The company started out as Kinex, created by a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo.

After being housed in the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute on the Medical Campus, last summer The News reported that the state and the company had reached an agreement to move its headquarters and some laboratory space to the new Conventus building elsewhere on the Medical Campus. The state paid for the sixth-floor buildout and a portion of the first floor for Athenex’s employees, now numbering about 45. It was a good investment, and the Dunkirk investment should pay off similarly.

Dunkirk should not be thought of as too far afield for a Buffalo Billion project. The whole region will benefit, and the project will strengthen Athenex’s headquarters on the Medical Campus. Sources have told The News that hundreds of jobs, possibly as many as 1,000, are likely to be created in the region over five years. The company’s investment is projected to reach hundreds of millions of dollars over that time.

One of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed the code name given to the project by state officials: “Little Big Apple.”

The name hints at the potential impact of the project.