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Vacant American Axle plant gets new life making green construction equipment

A company specializing in making lithium-ion battery packs and electric drive systems for heavy construction machinery is bringing manufacturing back to the vacant American Axle & Manufacturing facility on Buffalo's East Side with more than $7 million in public and private financing.

Viridi Parente Inc., which calls itself a "fuel and engine company for the new century," announced Wednesday it has begun operating at the former auto parts manufacturing facility at 1001 E. Delavan Ave. The power systems it will produce are driven by industrial-grade lithium-ion batteries that last longer than standard diesel engines, according to the company.

The company is occupying 25,000 square feet of the overall 850,000-square-foot complex for office, lab and production space.

The startup is led by Jon M. Williams, also the CEO and owner of Ontario Specialty Contracting, which owns two-thirds of the company. The rest of its executive team consists of nine veterans of advanced manufacturing, engineering, fuel-cell development and government relations.

The company operates through two subsidiaries, Green Machine Equipment Inc. and Volta Energy Products Inc.

Green Machine was originally started by OSC in 2010 to make lithium-ion battery packs and electric drive systems to replace diesel and internal combustion engines in heavy-duty construction equipment, according to the company. Its "Whispertech" technology now powers mini-excavators, portable light towers and clean power-storage devices for companies like National Grid, with no gas coming out of tailpipes and much lower costs to operate and maintain them.

Launched last year, Volta tests, designs and makes "next-generation" lithium-ion battery cells and modules that are "more powerful, dense, durable and safe for industrial applications than current storage technologies," according to the company.

The company received approval for a $1.4 million low-interest loan from the Buffalo & Erie County Regional Development Corp., an affiliate of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

That followed a recommendation by the agency's staff, based on the expectation of a "significant number of jobs" and OSC's past track record of paying back prior loans in advance, said ECIDA Assistant Loan Manager Mike Alexander. The company, which was launched last year, employs 10, but expects to create 28 more full-time jobs, according to RDC documents.

"It looks like a very, very exciting endeavor," said ECIDA and RDC Chairwoman Brenda McDuffie, noting that "it is a locally based company."

The 10-year RDC loan would be used for inventory and equipment purchases, as well as to cover working capital costs from continuing development of the core products. Specifically, according to the loan application documents, $500,000 will be used for research and development, testing and validation; $750,000 will go toward buying inventory like battery cells and machine shells; and $150,000 will be allocated for capital spending.

The firm also raised $4.05 million in private-equity funding from investors that will be used for research and development, and it has a $1 million working capital line of credit from KeyBank, which asked the RDC to participate because of the startup nature of the business, according to RDC documents. Viridi was also approved for a $600,000 term loan from the Western New York Impact Fund, also for working capital.

American Axle and former parent General Motors Corp. operated the East Side plant for 85 years until a dispute with the United Auto Workers prompted it to announce plans in July 2007 to close the facility and lay off 650 workers. It sold the empty property to OSC in October 2008 for $1.5 million, and Williams had envisioned redeveloping it into new industrial or commercial space for multiple tenants.

OSC spent two years cleaning up the site and demolishing unusable portions of the plant. It eventually attracted two tenants, galvanized steel products maker Galvstar, a startup that eventually closed, and Niagara Lubricant, a 95-year-old company that later purchased its building from OSC. OSC itself used other parts of the vast plant, including for what would become Green Machine.

Besides Viridi and OSC Manufacturing and Equipment Services, there are eight other tenants at the East Delavan complex, according to OSC spokesman Phil Pantano.

Manufacturing a turnaround: Former American Axle plant on East Side finds a new direction

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