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Calspan seeks tax breaks for new $7 million crash-test facility

Aeronautics and vehicle testing firm Calspan Corp. is asking for a series of tax breaks as it seeks to construct a new facility where it will develop life-saving vehicle safety systems.

The privately owned Cheektowaga-based firm has applied to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency for $439,375 in sales and mortgage recording tax incentives, and other property tax incentives, to support a $7.1 million project at 4455 Genesee St.

Plans call for construction and equipping of a 50,000-square-foot to 60,000-square-foot “multi-purpose” vehicle crash-testing facility, to help Calspan “create a new standard in vehicle and pedestrian safety.”

The new complex will largely provide research and development for new customers, and also for existing global clients like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Honda, Kia, Hyjndai, Toyota, and Subaru, as well as the U.S. Departments of Transportation and State. The facility would be able to run crash tests and also test crash avoidance technology and other such programs to benefit carmakers, drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

“These customers, and the public at large, will benefit from Calspan’s leadership and newfound ability to objectively evaluate these critical life-saving technologies,” the firm said in its application to the ECIDA.

The project, which will retain 113 jobs and create 11 new positions with an average salary of $75,000, will be located on the company’s current headquarters campus, which now has office buildings, testing facilities and vacant land. “Such a campus will provide decades of benefits to Western New York,” the company said in its application, and will “attract global suppliers, customers and supporting businesses to the region.”

The 73-year-old company was originally founded as part of the research laboratory of Curtiss-Wright Airplane Division in Buffalo but later operated as Cornell University’s Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory until 1972, when the university sold stock in it and set it up as a private company. It has been a leading player in transportation safety research and development, claiming credit for initial work that led to innovations like the crash test dummy and car seatbelts.

It’s currently engaged in work on full-scale vehicle crash testing, vehicle child seat safety testing, tire testing, transonic wind tunnel testing and aircraft development, and vehicle crash data research. The company hopes to build upon its 30-year record of vehicle crash-testing, but said that its current facility “is now out-dated and not up to industry standard.”

Specifically, officials note that Calspan’s current operation was “developed decades ago and is currently utilizing very outdated technology,” making it difficult to stay competitive in the marketplace.

“Calspan’s existing vehicle crash test business will imminently fail without this investment,” the company claims in its application. “The improvement to our current facilities is necessary,” but expensive.

The company vies for business against a variety of vehicle-testing rivals – including MGA Research in Wisconsin, Transportation Research Center in Ohio, Karco in California and AutoLiv in Ontario and Michigan – and many carmakers like Ford have their own test facilities as well. “It is critical to have the most modern and up-to-date facilities – to both ensure that our customers pick us over our third-party competition, but also over their own facilities,” Calspan said.

Moreover, the company ominously warned that, if it is forced out of the market because that business collapses, “it is certain that other jobs (most jobs) at Calspan will likely be affected.” The company’s overhead and corporate structure supports multiple facilities, so if one fails, all of the others would have to pick up a higher percentage of shared costs, putting them all at risk, except for the tire-testing facility, Calspan explained.

Raising the pressure, Calspan also claimed that it wants to keep its operations together in Western New York, even though the industry wants it to move to Michigan or California to be closer to carmakers and equipment manufacturers. It says it’s received “attractive offers from other states,” including Michigan, that would lower the overall cost of this project and the entire business, and said it can’t take on the project without ECIDA help.

Construction would cost $5 million, plus $800,000 for infrastructure, $300,000 for manufacturing equipment and $970,000 for furniture and fixtures. Calspan is seeking $50,000 in mortgage tax breaks and $389,375 in sales tax breaks. It also would finance the project with a $5 million loan and has applied for $1.4 million in grants from Empire State Development Corp.

If approved, Calspan envisions starting construction in September and finishing in August 2017.

A public hearing will be held on July 29, at 9 a.m., at Cheektowaga Town Hall, at 3301 Broadway. The public comment period ends on Aug. 23.


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