Daily Archives: Feb 25, 2018

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 area reporters 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 said 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 us 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.

We made more than half a dozen requests for interview over the past months, those were declined.

We also asked for the contracts between NYS and Tesla through the Freedom of Information Law. We filed four 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 us 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 us 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.

 

Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara (33), of Slovakia, battles Buffalo Sabres' Evander Kane (9) for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

BUFFALO, N.Y.  In their final matchup of the season, the Buffalo Sabres once again knocked off the Boston Bruins, topping their division rival 4-1. With their win, the Sabres take the season series 3-1. Benoit Pouliot, Kyle Okposo, Evan Rodrigues and Marco Scandella scored for the Sabres, while Charlie McAvoy scored the Bruins lone goal.

The first domino falls – Rick Nash walked into KeyBank Center around 2:45 p.m. as he joined his new team. With his trade Sunday morning, Evander Kane likely becomes the most notable forward available before Monday’s deadline.

While Kane and Nash certainly have their differences, Jason Botterill has to like what the Bruins gave up to add a much older forward with fewer points this season. Not only did the New York Rangers receive a first-round pick for Nash, they were also sent Ryan Lindgren (solid prospect), Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey and a seventh-round pick. If the Sabres can get a similar haul for Kane, fans should be elated, especially considering Kane could walk for nothing in the summer. With less than 24 hours until the deadline things are about to get fun.

Poo-Poo-Pouliot – Benoit Pouliot loves playing against the Bruins. In the first period, Pouliot scored his third goal of the season against the Bruins to give his team a 2-0 lead.

With Pouliot’s name getting thrown around in trade rumors, his 12th goal of the season certainly didn’t hurt his value. Although he’s been erratic and at times a defensive liability, Pouliot has proven to be a pleasant surprise this season and could likely be a nice depth player for a team looking to make a deep playoff run.

Get them some oxygen

At the end of the second period, the Bruins had the Sabres pinned in their own zone for what felt like an eternity. Nathan Beaulieu had the longest shift while trying to fight off the Bruins attack and was on the ice for more than four minutes! Justin Falk, Jason Pominville, Johan Larsson and Pouliot were also on the ice, each for more than three minutes. It wasn’t pretty but they kept the Bruins at bay and off the scoreboard.

Solid night for Johnson

Before Sunday’s game Sabres head coach Phil Housley told reporters he chose to play Chad Johnson because of his strong outing the last time these teams met. Johnson was once again great, turning away 34 of the 35 shots he faced. Like Lehner and the rest of his teammates, Johnson has had a season full of ups and downs but lately has been much better. If Lehner is dealt on Monday like some have speculated, be prepared for plenty of Johnson down the stretch.

Gio takes another run 

Good for Brian Gionta. The former Sabres captain is officially a member of the Boston Bruins and will join the team at practice on Tuesday.

“We consider him obviously a proven NHL player,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told John Vogl of the Buffalo News about Gionta. “I don’t know him well enough yet to see where he fits. I know he just played in the Olympics, but he hasn’t been playing all year, so where is his hockey stamina right now? “The thing we do have is a lot of games in March, so we have plenty of time to see where these guys best fit.”

Gionta has had a very successful NHL career and deserves to go out on his own terms. Despite his lack of production at the recent Olympic games with Team USA, Gionta will bring veteran leadership and add depth into a Bruins locker room poised to make a deep playoff run.

 

Experts and activists react to ‘bombshell’ decision to scrap two-term limit that was designed to guard against Mao-style personality cult in China

The news broke at three minutes to four on a chilly winter’s afternoon in a two-sentence bulletin.

“The Communist party of China central committee proposed to remove the expression that the president and vice-president of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s constitution,” Xinhua, China’s official news wire, reported. “The proposal was made public Sunday.”

It was a typically dreary communique from the party-controlled propaganda agency. But to those who have spent their lives battling to decrypt the enigma that is elite Chinese politics, the text’s historic significance was unmissable.

“A bombshell,” said Susan Shirk, one of the United States’ foremost China specialists.

“I wasn’t anticipating such an open declaration of the new regime … I thought maybe he would stop short of this.”

“He” is China’s 64-year-old leader, Xi Jinping, a man who, after Sunday’s sensational and unexpected announcement, appears poised to lead the world’s second largest economy and one of its largest military forces well into next decade and quite possibly beyond.

“It means that for a long time into the future, China will continue to move forwards according to Xi’s thoughts, his route, his guiding principles and his absolute leadership,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor from Beijing’s Renmin University.

Bill Bishop, the publisher of the Sinocism newsletter on Chinese politics, said the move confirmed Xi’s mutation into a species of “Putin-plus” – only Xi was “much more effective, much more powerful and, frankly, much more ambitious” than his Russian counterpart.

Shirk, who was US deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton, said: “What is going on here is that Xi Jinping is setting himself up to rule China as a strongman, a personalistic leader – I have no problem calling it a dictator – for life.”

The first five years of Xi’s reign, which began after he was named the Communist party’s general secretary in late 2012, have seen what many call the worst political crackdown in decades. Activists, dissidents and intellectuals greeted Sunday’s move with trepidation.

Xi Jinping to cement his power with plan to scrap two-term limit

“It will get worse, for sure … the consequences will be very severe,” warned Wu’er Kaixi, a prominent Chinese dissident who fled into exile after helping lead the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Wu’er, who now lives in Taiwan, was among those who signed an “emergency statement” condemning Xi’s decision to scrap presidential term limits as another step towards “tyranny”. “We shall not stay silent … this country is our country, and we cannot allow the ambitions of a few people lead [it] into a dark abyss,” the petition read.

Predictably, state media – from which China’s authoritarian leader has demanded “absolute loyalty” – put a more positive spin on the decision to scrap rules that were introduced in the 1980s to guard against the kind of catastrophic cult of personality that grew up around Chairman Mao.

An English-language editorial in the Global Times, a party-run tabloid, claimed “all Chinese people” backed the move and saw Xi as the right man to lead them into “a new era for a hopeful China”. “The change doesn’t mean that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure,” the newspaper claimed.

“Removal of the two-term limit of the president of PRC doesn’t mean China will restore life-long tenure for state leader. Such speculation is misreading,” tweeted the paper’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin.

Shirk, who now chairs the 21st Century China centre at the University of California, San Diego, disagreed.

“This was the one formal rule that could have blocked him from staying on and being leader for life. So eliminating it really brings the intentions out into the open and I think it eliminates any ambiguity about what is going on here,” she said. “He’s really made a power play that is stunning in its success.”

Jerome Cohen, a New York University expert in Chinese law and human rights, said China appeared to have forgotten “one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism” and be slipping into “another long period of severe dicatorship.”

For all Xi’s apparent dominance – achieved through a ruthless purge of rivals within China’s political, military and security establishment – experts believe his political project is not guaranteed to endure.

“A lot will depend on how the economy goes over the next 10 or 20 years,” said Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute. “If the economy continues to grow at 6% or 7% then the world will be a different one in 20 years time because China will be dominant.” A sustained economic slowdown, however, could consign Xi’s rule to the history books. “He knows that,” Tsang added.

Shirk agreed China’s “tragic” return to what she called “a kind of neo-traditional dictatorial system” was fraught with danger for both the country and its leader.

“When you are surrounded by sycophants, yes men, people who are too afraid to tell you what they really think, then there is a risk that the leader makes bad decisions,” she said.

“I’m not saying that we are going to have a famine like the Great Leap Forward or that China is going to turn into chaos like the Cultural Revolution. But … already there are some bad decisions being made.”

To illustrate her point, Shirk pointed to a new city being built near Beijing (“That is the sort of thing dictators always do. Don’t they love to do that?”) and Xi’s “overblown” signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road infrastructure campaign which she claimed was facing a growing global backlash.

Xi’s relentless tightening of political and social controls also carried risks. “It’s hard for me to see how this kind of police state that puts such severe restrictions on civil society and on information and on the educational system is really going to be a successful modern China,” Shirk said. “I expect there is going to be some form of push back eventually – he’s already lost the intellectuals.”

Wu’er said was outraged but not surprised by Xi’s power grab and hoped it would serve as a wake-up call to western leaders who had ignored dissidents’ warnings about China’s leader and instead “nurtured” Xi’s ambitions to become “a new 21st century dictator”.

The international community had enabled Xi by showering him with gifts and praise, the veteran activist claimed.

“Now he has become this monster that we are about to see.”

 

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