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Jefferson County solar panel plant could create hundreds of jobs

Jefferson County could be onto one of the biggest job creation projects in the North Country in decades.

ACO Investment Group, a company with projects in Asia and Africa wants to build a solar panel manufacturing plant and a software development company in the Watertown area. Developers say the project could create up to 2,000 jobs over five years. But many hurdles remain before it becomes a reality.

ACO is the parent company of two firms, each with plans under development with Jefferson County.

Convalt Energy operates half a dozen solar, wind, and other renewable projects in places like Myanmar, Laos, and India, with other projects under development in Chad and Sierra Leone.

The company’s been around for eight years and is based in New York City. CEO Hari Achuthan says its next step in its growth is manufacturing. So it set its sights on Watertown, which he says has a number of positive attributes, including nearby Fort Drum and a steady supply of people leaving the Army and looking for jobs, low cost power, and a good climate for keeping equipment cool.

“For the digital business, we like cold areas, where if we build a data center, the cooling costs come down,” Achuthan said. “We have a low cost of electricity. You’ve got Fort Drum with labor. You’re got colleges surrounding it. You’ve got plenty of land if we want development.”

Still many steps towards one of the region’s biggest new job creators in years Since August, Achuthan has been working with Jefferson County on the huge project — two new facilities, both at a county business zone near the Watertown Airport in the town of Hounsfield. One would manufacture solar panels as Convalt Energy with a starting workforce of 165 people. The other would make energy sensors for power transmission lines as DigiCollect, employing 175 people at first.

If the projects go as planned, the numbers are eye-popping: A $650 million investment; up to 2,000 jobs over five years at the two plants; $12 million dollars for the regional tax base over two decades.

Dave Zembiec, CEO for Jefferson County Economic Development says the projects could be transformative for the whole region. “We’re feeling great about it, and not just for the county,” Zembiec said, adding the jobs would be good-paying ones.

“Factory jobs for the production level jobs in the manufacturing facility, and DigiCollect, being a software enterprise, they will have a high proportion of software developers,” Zembiec said.

But there are still a lot of moving parts in this deal. Achuthan is still lining up investors. He’s negotiating with New York’s Empire State Development Corporation over incentives for job creation, low-cost power, and other tax breaks.

Jefferson County’s local and regional economic developers are working on a $2.5 million loan package for the two companies.

All sides say the earliest either of the facilities could break ground on construction would be the end of this year or early 2022.

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