Despite the troubling probe into the Buffalo Billion, don’t expect it to derail or delay the economic development initiative’s high-profile projects.
As the federal investigation deepens into possible fraud and improper dealings stemming from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s massive economic development initiative, the work will continue Monday morning at SolarCity’s solar panel factory in South Buffalo, the IBM data analytics center downtown and the Albany Molecular Research Inc. drug development venture on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, according to government, development and union officials involved with the projects.
“People are going to be on the job on Monday, and it’s full speed ahead,” said one official who spoke Saturday on the condition of anonymity. “The notion that these projects stop in their tracks – I just don’t see it.”
Behind that optimism are several factors:
• Key projects, including the $900 million SolarCity factory that is expected to bring 2,900 jobs to the region from the manufacturing plant and its suppliers, already have been fully funded in the state budget.
The recently passed state budget includes $685 million for “high-technology” projects in Erie and Chautauqua counties, including $200 million for the Athenex pharmaceuticals plant in Dunkirk.
The rest of the money – $485 million – is targeted for the SolarCity plant, which is being built with $750 million in state money.
• Several key Buffalo Billion projects already are up and running. AMRI opened its facility in the Conventus Building on the Medical Campus a year ago. IBM has been ramping up operations in temporary space in the Key Center and plans to move to its permanent home within three months. By fall, the core of the SolarCity factory is expected to be completed and the solar panel manufacturer will start installing some equipment.
• The companies, from SolarCity to IBM and AMRI, aren’t involved directly in the construction of the facilities, and the construction appears to be what has interested federal investigators. The companies will be tenants in buildings that are owned by the state. The state, often through an entity associated with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, is overseeing much of the construction.
“I don’t think they would stop them in any way,” said Daryl T. Bodewes, business manager for Local 276, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which has workers on several of the ongoing construction projects associated with the Buffalo Billion. “The funding is in place.”
That’s good for the Buffalo Niagara region, which is riding a new wave of optimism that the Buffalo Billion projects will help end decades of stagnancy and decline and get the area growing again.
But the federal investigation – and Cuomo’s decision Friday to order his own review of his signature economic development program – still casts a cloud of uncertainty over the entire initiative.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara started the investigation last year to look into allegations of improprieties within the Buffalo Billion program. But that probe now has broadened to include state contracts or state business beyond Western New York.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Bharara is looking into whether a former top Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, received outside income from companies doing business with the state, including COR Development Co., which is developing the Syracuse Inner Harbor and building a $90 million facility for LED lighting manufacturer Soraa. Soraa originally was slated to move to Buffalo before shifting to Syracuse after SolarCity expanded the scope of its solar panel factory.
The New York Daily News said investigators also are looking at Todd Howe, a Washington-based lobbyist who worked with Cuomo in state and federal government posts and who has done work for LPCiminelli, the Buffalo-based developer of the SolarCity project.
The governor launched his review because of “recently raised questions of improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest by some individuals” that may involve cases in which the state was “defrauded,” said Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, in a statement Friday. The governor’s office also has received a subpoena as part of the federal criminal probe.
“Without really know what the investigation really is, it’s hard for us on the construction side to know what the impact is,” Bodewes said. “I hope there isn’t any. I’d like to think these projects will move forward.”