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State lawmakers call for transparency as manufacturing moves forward at RiverBend

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- It's been five years since Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a major investment to transform a Brownfield site on South Park Ave. into the largest solar panel production facility in the western hemisphere.

There are still questions about why the Buffalo Billion's flagship project is still not completely up and running. We were not allowed inside the facility and the state would not go on camera to talk about the project.

Tesla and Panasonic started production at the facility last year. Over the next decade, the two companies are expected to invest more than a billion dollars here, plus create more than a thousand jobs.

"Overall it's going very, very well," said Terry VanEpps, Panasonic’s talent acquisition manager for the project.

Tesla recruited Panasonic to Buffalos' RiverBend complex in the fall of 2016 to make solar modules and cells for Tesla's solar roofs.

"Manufacturing started in October of last year for solar panels, or modules as we call them, and then our phase two which is solar cells should begin in a couple of months," said VanEpps.

Panasonic has now hired 300 people. VanEpps told us about a third of those positions are hands-on production jobs. The rest are in support positions, including human resources, engineering, and maintenance.

The company plans to add another 150 positions by the end of the year.

"A good portion of those will also be production, either machine operators or general production associates, and the rest are going to be related to engineering, supply chain and positions of that nature," said VanEpps. "We should be stabilized right around 450, beyond that we may do additional hiring, it all depends on how the business picks up."

The state bought the land from the City of Buffalo in 2014 and pledged a $225 million investment to bring two California companies, Soraa and Silevo, here to create green energy jobs.

Empire State Development CEO Howard Zemsky sat down with News 4’s Al Vaughters when the project was first announced.

"We’re going to attract through this investment, make a compelling case, to bring in literally dozens of other companies in clean energy," said Zemsky.

The state took on the task of building the facility, which it owns.

An early agreement with Silevo in 2014 pledged 1,460 high tech manufacturing jobs creating solar modules. Nine hundred jobs had to be filled in the first two years. It also called for the creation more than a thousand other jobs through contractors and suppliers in the region.

In total, Silevo agreed to create 5,000 jobs statewide through the project.

SolarCity eventually bought Silevo. In 2016, Tesla bought SolarCity.

Over the past four years, the state has upped its investment to $750 million.

As the site has changed hands, the agreement with the state has been altered.

"Their commitments are still 1,400 some odd people for Buffalo and Western New York," said Zemsky during budget hearings in Albany last week.

Empire State Development delivered its 2017 annual report late, just releasing it in the last week.

It says 1,460 jobs are still promised. Five hundred of those jobs will be in the factory.

According to the state, Western New Yorkers will have to wait until 2020 to see all of the positions filled.

Tesla told us, however, it will get hiring done within a year and a half. The company has agreed to create 5,000 jobs in New York State in the next decade, the same goal set by Silevo in 2014.

Tesla told News 4 there are more than 500 people working at the facility right now. The company said most of its employees are from Buffalo and Erie County.

"As far as we can tell, only a few people from what we would call the 'old neighborhoods’ are working there," said Mike Murphy, the president of the Valley Neighborhood Watch Alliance. "I attended the groundbreaking when Governor Cuomo was in town, me and one of my other board members, and they're way behind the eight ball in terms of employment."

Murphy has been disappointed in the number of job fairs held in the Valley, Old First Ward and South Buffalo. He said those are working class communities that  need solid jobs with benefits.

"We would just like to know, again, what their numbers are in terms of employment and where these people are coming from," said Murphy.

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns agrees. He left the State Assembly last year, where he was South Buffalo's representative.

"When I talk to people in the community, they ask me, they put their application in and they’re waiting for a job," said Kearns. "We did hear about job creation, we did hear about job fairs but we haven’t seen the results."

Panasonic told us it's recruiting from across the region.

"We started in the core in the city and then worked our way out from where we are located," said VanEpps. "We've been as far down as Dunkirk in Jamestown Community College doing informational sessions."

He told News 4 more than 1,100 people attended two job fairs in the City of Buffalo. The applicants competed for the company’s 450 jobs.

"We’ll hire people with minimal experience honestly, a lot of it has to do with the quality of the candidate, what their career goals are," said VanEpps.

Tesla sent out a shareholder letter Wednesday evening.

It read in part, "..we are ahead of schedule with the hiring targets we've agreed to with the State of New York. As solar roof is truly the first-of-its-kind and there is significant complexity in both its manufacturing and installation, we are deliberately ramping production at a gradual pace. When fully scaled, Gigafactory 2 will be able to produce enough solar cells to add more than 150,000 new residential solar installations every year."

"The goal is to make sure that we fill these jobs as quickly as possible and individuals across every demographic, across every single neighborhood in the City of Buffalo, and across Western New York have equal opportunity to gain access to these jobs," said State Senator Tim Kennedy.

We met the Democratic lawmaker at his South Buffalo Office.

He believes 10 to 20 years down the road the state's investment in the RiverBend complex will pay off.

"Tesla is not the silver bullet, and there is no silver bullet, but that being said it is going to be a big, big help and boost to the economy here in WNY," said Sen. Kennedy.

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns told News 4 everyone is rooting for the project to succeed.

"I’m hopeful that this is a successful project because if this is successful then Buffalo is successful," said Kearns.

There are provisions in place to make sure Tesla reaches its hiring requirements.

"We do have clawback provisions in the agreement with Tesla," said Zemsky, in Albany last week. "I don't recall what the dollar amount is but it's not inconsequential."

The state is staying tight lipped about the RiverBend project.

News 4 made more than half a dozen requests for interview over the past month, those were declined.

We also asked for the contracts between NYS and Tesla through the Freedom of Information Law. News 4 filed requests with ESD, Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, SUNY Polytechnic and the NYS Division of Budget.

All four parties have a role in managing or moving this project forward.

The budget office responded that it needs until May to come up with the documents.

State lawmakers made it clear during the economic development budget hearing they also want an update on this project.

"Do we still have an enforceable agreement in place after all of the changes as far as ownership?" asked Assemblyman Ray Walter.

The Republican lawmaker is calling for more transparency on state economic development projects.

"A database of deals where you can go onto a website and search a deal we've incentivized with state money and figure out where it is in the process, and how much money they've received, and how much they've lived up to their agreements," explained Assemblyman Walter.

He told News 4 there are a number of bills on the table this session to make sure state agencies are held accountable. One calls for penalties if state agencies, like ESD, fail to file required reports on time. It also says the state needs to hire an outside firm to do an audit of all state economic development projects.

 

Calls for transparency really started more than a year ago after top state officials were accused of bid-rigging.

Prosecutors accuse former SUNY Polytechnic head Alain Kaloyeros and others of favoring Buffalo developer Louis Ciminelli, ensuring he was awarded the $750 million project.

That trial gets underway in late spring, early summer 2018.

Sen. Kennedy told News 4 this project has been a learning experience.

"Certainly there were hiccups along the way and some of those certainly could've been prevented," he said. "We have to learn, the state has to learn, Empire State Development, and every single development agency has to learn from some of the mistakes that were made."

Assemblyman Walter said there is momentum to get bills passed that would improve accoutability.

"We’ve made a $750 million investment of taxpayer money and we want to make sure that is going to pay off," he said.


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