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Progress is ‘swift’ on RiverBend land deal

New York State has agreed on terms to buy the 88 acres of city-owned land in South Buffalo that will house a new high-tech and clean-energy complex at RiverBend.

The deal marks what officials call “swift progress” in advancing a monumental project that seeks to transform a former steelmaking site from a brownfield into a green-power economic driver. It comes just two months after the initial announcement of the RiverBend project, indicating seriousness on the part of the state to move forward quickly.

Under a memorandum of understanding reached between city and state leaders and being announced today, the state’s Fort Schuyler Management Corp. will pay the city’s Buffalo Urban Development Corp. $2.5 million to buy the sprawling property along a curve in the Buffalo River.

Once completed, the purchase will clear the way for the state to proceed with plans for what it describes as a “state-of-the-art anchor hub facility” that it has dubbed the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at RiverBend.

Officials expect to announce a “designated developer” soon and plan to break ground this spring, with two California-based solar-power companies relocating significant operations here and taking occupancy of their new facilities by the second quarter of 2015.

The state will invest $225 million, out of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s pledge for a Buffalo Billion, in the project, while the two companies – Soraa and Silevo – will invest $750 million each, for a total of more than $1.7 billion. The project is expected to create 850 permanent jobs and more than 500 construction jobs.

“We are now poised to bring about one of the most dramatic developments in Buffalo’s history,” Cuomo said in a statement. “With cutting-edge technology, hundreds of good-paying jobs, and the attraction of dynamic 21st-century high-tech companies, RiverBend will further strengthen the city’s and region’s continuing economic revival.”

Fort Schuyler is a nonprofit entity created to manage property transactions on behalf of the State University of New York Research Foundation, which will own the facilities and equipment on the complex that the companies will use.

Besides the specifics of the purchase itself, the memorandum also calls for the city and state to partner in a Community Development Agreement, which would provide for local minority- and women-owned businesses to participate in the redevelopment of the site, as well as future operations and research. It would also require the city and state to permit Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper to access the site for a continuing federally funded shoreline-restoration project along the river.

“The MOU is a significant step in bringing the $1.7 billion RiverBend project to Buffalo’s burgeoning waterfront,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a news release. “I’m also proud to say that this agreement protects the taxpayers of our city and provides more business and job opportunities for city residents.”

The agreement in just two months is unusual for a project of this scope and complexity, and it signals the state’s interest in seeing the Buffalo initiative take off.

Plans call for converting the RiverBend property, which is the site of a former Republic Steel facility, into a cutting-edge research and manufacturing complex capable of luring additional companies and jobs to Buffalo, akin to what has happened in Albany with the nanotechnology industry.

“This agreement marks swift progress by the state in acquiring the RiverBend property and carrying out the exciting redevelopment of the former steel manufacturing site into a state-of-the-art clean energy innovation hub,” Cuomo said.

Empire State Development Corp. will spend $225 million, including the purchase price, to set up infrastructure – such as water, sewer, utility and roads – at the site, as well as to build a state-owned 275,000-square-foot facility to house initial tenants Soraa and Silevo. It will also buy and own the equipment for the companies, which will not get direct state funding.

Fremont, Calif.-based Soraa is a 6-year-old manufacturer of high-efficiency “green” LED lighting. It will invest $750 million to move its corporate research and development functions, and its manufacturing operations, to RiverBend, creating 375 jobs.

Silevo, a 7-year-old startup that already has a manufacturing plant in China, develops and makes silicon solar cells and modules. The company initially plans to invest $750 million to construct a 200-megawatt production facility at RiverBend, housing its only North American manufacturing operation and creating at least 475 jobs.

The state will build additional facilities over time – six are envisioned for now – for other manufacturing companies in biotech, high-tech and green energy.

Officials also expect local colleges and universities, including the University at Buffalo, to benefit from and contribute to the new venture.