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Genesee County residents question tax breaks for solar wafer plant

ALABAMA – The possibility of 1366 Technologies Inc. becoming another Muller Quaker Dairy LLC has not been lost upon the citizens of this Genesee County hamlet.

Speaking at a public hearing Tuesday night at the Alabama Fire Hall, residents Lorna Klotzbach and David Dunn said they wondered what would happen if the Bedford, Mass., solar wafer manufacturing company decided to leave the Western New York Science and Technology Advanced Manufacturing Park, a 1,250-acre nanotechnologies site in the Town.

“You are getting tax abatements at the expense of local and state taxpayers. Where is the accountability?” Klotzbach asked. “What happens if 1366 Technologies leaves?”

Dunn brought up the recent closing of the Muller Quaker yogurt plant at the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park in the Town of Batavia.  “Muller got incentives from the state and when they ran out, they left,” Dunn said. “I hope that 1366 Technologies and Mark (Masse, senior vice president of the Genesee County Economic Development Center) work together to make sure the business stays here instead of finding an option somewhere else.”

The center scheduled the meeting as a legal requirement after its board of directors accepted 1366 Technologies’ application for $34.7 million in tax incentives to build its first production plant at the STAMP site. About 60 people attended.

Many of the questions fielded by Brian Eller, 1366 Technologies chief executive officer, and Masse dealt with other issues, such as the impact on the environment and farmland, increased traffic and possible damage to roadways, loss of sales tax revenue, waste water and sewage disposal, workforce training, and zoning incentives for the town.

Klotzbach said she worried about the “transfer of an agricultural jewel to an industrialized area,” adding that 1366 Technologies could have located at an empty industrial site in Buffalo.

Others asked “why not Buffalo or Rochester?” to which Eller replied that the STAMP site was the best fit out of 300 different sites that the company studied.

“It’s in a (low-cost) hydropower zone and we have the benefit of two large metropolitan areas with a talented and skilled workforce,” Eller said. “It best met our needs.”

Masse opened what turned out to be a 90-minute session with findings from an economic impact study. He said that 1366 Technologies will create 1,000 direct jobs and more than 4,000 “indirect, induced and temporary” jobs while infusing $1.5 billion into the regional and state economy over the 10-year life of the project.

“For every dollar in (sales, mortgage and property tax) incentives, $43 will come back to the region and $45 to the state,” Masse said.

Eller said his company has developed technology that cuts the cost of its silicon wafers in half when compared with products made in Asia.

“These wafers, 156 by 156 millimeters in size, are the building blocks of solar panels,” he said. “Our process eliminates steps, time and wasted material.”

He outlined what he termed an “aggressive plan” to begin operations. A 250-megawatt plant should be up and running by the spring of 2017, creating 150 jobs. The $700 million project will expand in phases, ending with a three-gigawatt facility.

“By the time we reach three gigawatts, the total market will be about 100 gigawatts, so there is plenty of room to expand and do more,” he said. “This is our chance to participate in a growing global community.” Eller said he and four or five others will be moving to Western New York to run the facility.

Both Masse and Eller said their respective firms are working with area colleges and high schools to foster certificate and degree programs in nanotechnology, and will be utilizing workforce training methods to fill production jobs, which currently pay between $16 and $24 per hour.

Local software developer Robert Castleman applauded the news of STAMP’s first tenant, saying it could be an opportunity for him to hire up to 100 people over the next five years.

“I understand the changes to the temperament of this community … but technology is coming, and we need to integrate it into our school systems,” he said.