JCIDA official praises 2 solar projects

Two companies plan to invest $650 million and create 2,000 jobs at a proposed business park next to Watertown International Airport. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency took the first step toward approving a financial incentive package for the companies that plan to construct a solar panel manufacturing plant at a proposed business park near Watertown International Airport in the town of Hounsfield.

The JCIDA announced Tuesday that Convalt Energy, a New York City-based renewable energy company, plans to build a solar panel manufacturing facility in the agency’s proposed business park on Route 12F. Its sister company, DigiCollect, would also build a facility in the airport park.

It’s envisioned that the two companies would invest $650 million in the projects. Combined, the two projects expect to create 2,000 jobs over the next five years, according to a JCIDA press release.

The JCIDA’s revolving loan fund committee unanimously agreed to give 20-year tax abatement packages to the two companies. The full board is expected to approve the financial incentives Thursday.

The JCIDA also would provide DigiCollect a $500,000 loan and Convalt a $250,000 loan, said David J. Zembiec, chief executive officer of Jefferson County Economic Development, the JCIDA’s sister organization.

Before the vote, the revolving loan committee met for about 90 minutes to talk about the venture.

Under the payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement, or PILOT, the companies would get a 100% property tax break during the first five years of the package, pay 25% for the next five years, 50% in the next five years and 75% in the last five. Over that time, Convalt would pay about $7.93 million in property taxes, while DigiCollect would pay $3.97 million in property taxes, Mr. Zembiec said.

“A project of this magnitude will be transformative for the entire region and a tremendous opportunity for manufacturing job growth in the North Country.” Mr. Zembiec said in the JCIDA’s release. “Although we are still very early in the process in bringing this project from concept to reality, today’s recommendation is a good step forward and we are optimistic about the job creation and economic growth possibilities it presents.”

Afterward, JCIDA board member Robert E. Aliasso Jr. called the financial packages “fair” because of the heavy investment the companies would be making and the number of jobs they would create.

“I think it’s fairly standard,” he said.

JCIDA board member and city Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said the companies have promised to start off with a certain amount of jobs and expand after that. The companies also would “kick start the business park that the IDA has worked on for years,” she said.

The Convalt facility would initially create about 165 jobs in the first year, then grow to 525 in five years, Mr. Zembiec said. DigiCollect would employ an additional 175 people in Watertown in its first year and expand to 1,535 jobs after five years.

Mr. Zembiec has been working with Convalt’s chairman and CEO, Hari Achuthan, since August. Mr. Achuthan’s company plans to invest $650 million in the venture over 10 years.

Mr. Achutan discussed his plans with the committee before it went into executive session.

Instead of relying on other companies, the airport facility would manufacture solar panels for a series of renewable energy projects that Convalt Energy is involved with in Africa and Asia.

DigiCollect, a software technology company, builds Enterprise Resource Platforms that would manage and monitor the company’s renewable energy system in real time once it’s in operation.

The companies hope to break ground on the airport park project in the fourth quarter of this year, or early 2022. The company is still looking for investors in the project.

Local officials praised the JCIDA for landing the project and for the jobs that the companies would create.

“The jobs will be a blessing for the region,” town of Hounsfield Supervisor Timothy W. Scee said.

Calling it “excellent news,” Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said the announcement comes at a time when the region has been hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the news.

“This will be a great potential for the north country and the community in terms of job creation,” he said.

The PILOT agreements would need to be approved by local taxing entities. The state’s Empire State Development Corp. is offering tax credit and job credits to the company.

“Empire State Development welcomes discussions with any business looking to create jobs and invest in New York state, but can neither confirm nor deny any potential negotiations,” ESD spokesman Adam Ostrowski said.

The JCIDA will work with other local and regional economic development agencies to create a total loan package of $1.25 million for each of the two companies, according to the press release.

The companies would be the first to build on the site that the JCIDA has been trying to develop for several years.

In year one, Convalt plans to build a 20,000-square-feet facility and hopes to expand it to about 500,000 square feet by the fifth year.

Convalt Energy is gearing up to become a global independent power producer in renewables and is primarily focused on developing and owning energy generation, transmission, and distribution assets, in addition to being vertically integrated as a manufacturer.

The facility will manufacture photovoltaic (solar) panels to supply its own projects around the world and to sell to other small and large solar projects, including rooftop solar.

DigiCollect also would initially construct a 5,000-square-foot facility that would grow to 100,000 square feet in year five.

DigiCollect is a technology platform that has developed proprietary applications focused on the energy, utilities and infrastructure sectors, as well as specific plans to build their patented energy sensors at the Jefferson County facility.

The sensors provide real-time management and monitoring of power transmission lines and monitoring of residential power grids, helping power companies inject higher amounts of renewable energy.

The JCIDA owns the property. The main site for the airport business park, which is east of the airport off Route 12F, is about 90 acres. It includes an additional 12 acres on the west side of the airport.

Mr. Achuthan is also the founder, chairman and CEO of ACO Investment Group, Convalt’s parent company. Founded in 2011 and based in New York City, ACO is an alternative investments manager and a private equity firm that focuses on investing in the energy, power, information technology, e-commerce, telecommunication, transportation and logistic sectors.

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