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 has landed what could be the biggest economic development project in its history with construction of a solar panel manufacturing plant at a proposed business park near Watertown International Airport.

The JCIDA will announce Tuesday morning 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 in the town of Hounsfield.

The Convalt facility would initially create about 165 jobs in the first year, then grow to 525 in five years, said David J. Zembiec, chief executive officer of Jefferson County Economic Development, the JCIDA’s sister organization.

DigiCollect, another company associated with Convalt Energy, 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.

The state’s Empire State Development Corp. is offering tax credit and job credits to the company, Mr. Zembiec said.

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.

“They want to avoid the middle man,” Mr. Zembiec said.

The company is developing renewable projects in the western and central Africa countries of Chad, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. The company has worked on a 300-megawatt solar renewable project in Myanmar and owns a waste-to-renewable-energy plant in India. The company also runs wind and hydro power plants in other countries, according to its website.

The JCIDA’s Revolving Loan Fund Committee plans to approve a loan application and payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreement with the company Tuesday morning, with the full board voting on the funding package Thursday. Mr. Achuthan is in town to attend both meetings.

The company hopes to break ground on the airport park project in the fourth quarter of this year, or early 2022, Mr. Achuthan said Monday.

The company is still looking for investors in the project.

The announcement has been coming for weeks. In December of last year, Mr. Zembiec confirmed that a solar-related company was eyeing the airport park and that news could come by the end of the year. At the time, he declined to divulge the name of the company or any information about the venture.

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.

The company would be the first to build on the site that the JCIDA has been trying to develop for several years. DigiCollect also would construct a 5,000-square-foot facility that would grow to 100,000 square feet in year five, Mr. Achuthan said.

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, Mr. Zembiec said.

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.

Convalt had been looking at other sites in New York and outside of the state before deciding on the Watertown location, Mr. Zembiec said. He first mentioned a site in Deferiet to Mr. Achuthan, then the company CEO came to Watertown in November to see the airport site.

The airport location has a direct connection to air travel, it’s close to Interstate 81 and is in proximity to Canada and access to the St. Lawrence River, Mr. Zembiec said.

Fort Drum would be a source for its workforce at the facilities, with about 150 soldiers retiring from the post every month, Mr. Achuthan said. He noted the companies’ hopes of reverting to the north country’s manufacturing past, the region’s connection to hydro power and its rural atmosphere as other “attributes” that attracted him to Jefferson County.

He also noted that the state is making a commitment to renewable energy.

“It was checking off 20 boxes, not just one thing,” he said, adding that the JCIDA was “more aggressive” than other economic development agencies that competed for the project. “It just made for a natural fit.” It also was important to keep all operations at one site, rather than splitting them up in two or three areas, he said.

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.

“We’re a quiet company that operates under the radar,” Mr. Achuthan said.

Prior to founding ACO and Convalt, Mr. Achuthan was a director at Credit Suisse Asset Management in the Alternative Investment group, where he covered hedge fund, real estate and private equity strategies.

He has a bachelor of science degree in applied economics from Hofstra University and is a frequent guest lecturer at Louisiana State University School of Business.

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(2) comments

Eagle24

Agree with Mayor Smith...process with caution... trust but verify... whenever someone approaches the county with pie in the sky employment numbers , especially during the negotiating stage, the language in the agreement needs to protect the county...and progressive in nature... Fingers crossed ... but very suspect of claims during this stage..

rdsouth

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