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Battery maker weighs move into closed East Huntingdon Sony plant

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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012

Westmoreland County officials should learn within a month whether an advanced battery-making firm in Pittsburgh will relocate to the former Sony Technology Center near New Stanton, sparking growth that could fill the plant with about 2,000 workers within five years.

The sprawling former Sony television assembly plant in East Huntingdon is the single most important economic development site in the county, Jason Rigone, executive director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Authority, said on Wednesday during the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland's annual meeting at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.

Aquion Energy Inc. in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville section intends to decide in the next month whether it will locate its manufacturing operations at the former Sony plant, said Ted Wiley, vice president for business and market development for Aquion, yesterday when contacted after the economic development program.

Aquion is reviewing the package of economic incentives offered by the states competing for an Aquion manufacturing plant that will produce batteries that store electricity using sodium rather than lithium. The advanced batteries are a less expensive method of storing electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Pennsylvania's package of economic incentives is "competitive" with what other states are offering, Wiley said. He declined to comment on the incentives other states are offering, or what other states are competing for the plant. Aquion said in September it was considering sites in six states.

The company might occupy 100,000 square feet in its first phase of operations, and up to 500,000 square feet in future development, Rigone said. Within five years, Aquion could employ 600 workers, Rigone said.

Even if Aquion decides to locate elsewhere, Rigone said he was confident that within seven years, the former Sony building will be fully occupied by manufacturing operations.

The Regional Industrial Development Corp. in Pittsburgh, which is marketing the property, is close to finalizing a 30-year agreement to lease the property from its owner, the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority. Sony Corp. had leased the property from the state authority.

RIDC President Donald F. Smith Jr. could not be reached for comment.

One of the challenges to marketing the property is the need to make renovations to the building, separate utilities for multiple tenants and redesign interior spaces for different companies. The county did receive a $10 million capital improvement grant for that work, Rigone said.

The county has applied for an $8 million low-interest loan through the state's Business in Our Sites program, Rigone said. That money would be used for building renovations.

The former television assembly plant, which closed in March 2010, is being used by three manufacturers:

-- Solar Power Industries Inc. of Rostraver makes silicon ingots for solar power products in its 265,000 square feet of space.

-- The former Sony Chemicals Corp. operations, now Dai Nippon Printing IMSA, makes thermal transfer ink ribbons for barcodes in 135,000 square feet at the facility.

-- Leeds Inc., a promotion product company based in New Kensington, uses space at the plant for warehousing products.

About 1.5 million square feet of the 2.4 million square-foot plant will be available to lease after Westmoreland County Community College signs an agreement to create a 70,000 square-foot state-of-the-art job training center at the plant, Rigone said.

The community college is waiting for the state industrial development authority to reach an agreement with the RIDC before signing the lease.

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