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Businesses grow in Tonawanda, cushioning blow from Huntley closure

The Town of Tonawanda didn't shut its doors after its biggest taxpayer, the Huntley Power Plant, closed just over a year ago, eliminating 79 jobs and nearly $6 million a year in property tax revenue.

Instead, new and existing businesses continue to invest and expand in the town, cushioning the blow to Tonawanda's economy.

Employers have added "at least" 200 jobs in the past year in the town, said James Hartz, the town's director of planning and development.

"We've hit a sweet spot," said Hartz.

The expanding businesses include small ones like Pine Pharmaceuticals as well as manufacturing giants like General Motors and Sumitomo Rubber Industries. Some, like candymaker First Source, are relocating to industrial parks in Tonawanda from sites elsewhere in the town. Others are expanding their existing sites in Tonawanda industrial parks, like manufacturer Unifrax.

As a result, Tonawanda remains the industrial core of Buffalo's suburbs, a place that can rebound quicker from the loss of tax revenue and jobs from the Huntley plant.

Data from Tonawanda Tomorrow, which on June 21 presented a report on how Tonawanda can grow in future years, shows that 32,000 people worked in Tonawanda in 2014, including about 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce in the Buffalo Niagara region, Hartz said.

What was most encouraging to him was the increase in the number of younger workers, in the 24 to 35 age group. He said census data provided by Tonawanda Tomorrow showed there was a 24 percent increase in younger workers in the town from 2000 to 2014, which Hartz said is the "key to building a more sustainable future."  

Over the past year, the 150,000 commuters each day on the I-290 have had a front-row seat to watch a development boom happening just off the highway, at the North Youngmann Commerce Center, which the town remediated and opened in 2015.

The first tenant there was First Source, a candymaker that opened its 310,000-square-foot world headquarters in 2016. It has 250 workers there. Another tenant, Unifrax, which makes ceramic fiber insulation products used in high-temperature industrial, automotive and fire protection applications, is in the midst of an 83,000-square-foot expansion. It plans to add 25 jobs.

Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said that within a week of opening the North Youngmann Commerce Center, First Source was knocking on the town's door. He said town officials are in talks now with a unnamed business developer who wants to buy the remaining 15 to 20 acres in the 70-acre park.

"It all happened so fast," Emminger said of the industrial park's growth.

Another actively growing industrial site in Tonawanda is the Riverview Solar Technology Park. TM Montante's  200-acre business and light industrial park, which features on-site solar generation, is located off River Road, near the City of Tonawanda boundary. The park opened in 2013. Its first tenant, FedEx Trade Networks, located there in 2014, bringing 168 jobs. Pine Pharmaceuticals is moving into the Solar Technology Park with construction of a new 25,000-square-foot facility. Pine Pharmaceuticals will move into the larger location from its current site in the town, with plans to add 15 high-paying chemical industry jobs, nearly doubling its current workforce of 18.

There has also been hundreds of millions of dollars in investment at longtime manufacturing plants.

Sumitomo Rubber Industries and General Motors Tonawanda Engine Plant are both investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new equipment at their plants, which employ thousands.

Sumitomo is in the midst of a 25,000-square-foot expansion and is seeking approval for an additional 71,000-square-foot expansion. The Japanese company, which employs 1,300 at the Tonawanda plant, has made the Town of Tonawanda plant its only tire manufacturing site in the United States. General Motors, which had been on the brink of closing its Tonawanda site just under a decade ago, has invested over $1.1 billion since 2010 there ($825 million in 2010, $296 million this past year), adding three new engine lines. GM plans to add an additional 67 employees to its 1,625-person workforce.

The first hotel to be built in the town in two decades is under construction on Niagara Falls Boulevard, between Forbes and Thistle avenues, said Hartz. Developer Chan Patel purchased the 208-foot-deep parcel with vacant and deteriorating houses several years ago with plans to build a four-story, 84-room Holiday Inn Express. After a two-year rift with neighbors, the height of the hotel was reduced to three-stories, but it remains at 84 rooms.

The reasons for the boom?

Emminger said visibility from the highway, close proximity to the Canadian border, as well as dependable water and sewer infrastructure are big reasons behind the growth.

"Unifrax is the largest user of water in the county. Not only do they pay taxes, but they pay town water bills, which is a big help," said Emminger. "We were in competition with Prague (in the Czech Republic) for the world headquarters. They chose Tonawanda. Water breaks are downtime for them."

But he said that dependability didn't come cheap. He said the town spent tens of million of dollars on water and sewer infrastructure over the past eight years. It is now seeing the benefit.

"We spent a lot of time west of Military Road. That's our growth area – North Youngmann, Sumitomo, the River Road corridor. The River Road corridor, which includes the Solar Park, is probably going to be our next area of development," said Emminger.

Hartz said that in addition to new jobs, the town's economy is cleaner now because of the closing of Huntley, a coal-fired power plant that had been one of Erie County's biggest polluters.

In addition there have been environmental improvements at Tonawanda Coke, said Hartz. After a $12 million conviction in 2015, Tonawanda Coke was ordered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up contamination at the site, which included spending $7.9 million to reduce air pollution and enhance air and water quality. Part of the consent decree ordered monitoring for coke oven leaks, assessing key equipment, repairing and replacing equipment and installing new pollution controls.

"This is the cleanest our air has been in a long time," added Hartz.

NRG has not told town officials what it plans to do with its Huntley plant. Hartz estimated it could take 20 to 30 years to redevelop the site.

Hartz and Emminger agreed that the town can't find an overnight replacement for the Huntley plant's property tax revenue. But Emminger said town officials hope that within four or five years they will be able to replace the revenue Huntley generated as more businesses locate in the town or expand.

"I've said this numerous times: 'As one door opens another closes and you can't spend all your time focusing on the closed door. You have to look at the opportunity behind the open door.' And that's what we are doing, looking at opportunities," Emminger said.

"We've got some momentum going in our town," he said. "I'm not putting my head in the sand saying we are never going to recover from the Huntley closing."

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