Cash-strapped Onondaga County spending $1.6 million to upgrade vacant business park

Syracuse, N.Y. – The same day they authorized up to 250 layoffs to deal with a fiscal crisis, Onondaga County legislators today approved spending $1.6 million in hopes of attracting a tenant to the county’s vacant 450-acre business park in Clay.

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The money approved today would pay engineers to design a sewer system for the undeveloped site, including a major pump station and a 4-mile sewer main. The full construction cost for the sewer project would be about $16 million, which would require further authorization from lawmakers.

The expense comes at a time when the county is suffering big deficits caused by the coronavirus. But County Executive Ryan McMahon said the White Pine project will be paid for out of the county sewer fund, which gets money from sewer fees, and won’t affect general operations. Meanwhile, the project could help lure a major new employer, he said.

Companies have expressed interest in White Pine but won’t commit to the undeveloped site if there’s a risk they’ll have to wait for sewer service to be installed, he said. County officials hope to attract a high-tech manufacturer to the site at the northeast corner of Route 31 and Caughdenoy Road in Clay.

“We’ve had a lot of activity at White Pine, but what we’ve learned is there is a time-to-market challenge,’’ McMahon said. “Nobody is going to go to a site that doesn’t have (sewer) utilities.’’

McMahon said he would like to see the sewer infrastructure in place next year.

Five Democratic legislators voted against spending the $1.6 million. Legislator Peggy Chase, D-Syracuse, said she would only support the expense if a tenant were committed to locating in the business park. She noted that county officials have tried to market the property for years.

“If somebody could tell me today that we have a company who is interested in developing this, I would vote for it in a minute,’’ Chase said. “When we’re looking at laying people off and we’re willing to take $1.6 million out of our fund balance, I’m not buying that.’’

A separate resolution approved today authorized McMahon to lay off as many as 250 county workers to balance the budget, which has been ravaged because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican legislators argued that the money for sewer engineering will come from a surplus in the sewer fund, which could not be used to pay for general county operating expenses. And Legislator Casey Jordan, R-Clay, said there is a prospective tenant that is considering White Pine against a rival site in Texas. But he said he did not know the identity of the company.

Depending on what tenant occupies the site, it’s possible that county government will spend even more in the future to help underwrite electric service at the site, McMahon said. Electric infrastructure capable of serving a major high-tech manufacturer could cost $20 million to $70 million, McMahon said.

McMahon said it’s important to have sewers at the site now, but he won’t commit to spending money on electric infrastructure until a tenant signs a lease.

“If you see us asking for $70 million in infrastructure spending, you’ll know we have somebody,’’ he said.

White Pine is one of four sites in National Grid’s Upstate service territory with the most potential to host advanced manufacturing, the utility said in an economic development report filed last October with the state Public Service Commission.

Two of the other sites already have high-tech manufacturers: Marcy Nanocenter in Oneida County, which recently recruited Cree to build a $1.2 billion, 600-worker semiconductor facility; and Luther Forest Technology Campus in Saratoga County, home to a $13 billion GlobalFoundries chip factory with roughly 3,000 employees. The fourth Upstate mega-site, according to National Grid, is the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, a shovel-ready 1,250-acre site in Genesee County.

Onondaga County spent a total of $3.2 million over several decades to acquire land for the business park, which is owned by the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency. McMahon said improving the site will pay off in the future.

“Government always plays a role on stimulus,’’ he said. Its role is “to spend money on infrastructure that’s going to drive job growth.’’

News tips? Contact reporter Tim Knauss of syracuse.com/The Post-Standard: email  5/8  Twitter  5/8 5/8 315-470-3023

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