By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS — A seemingly routine request for an approval from the city’s planning board turned into a discussion Wednesday about the use of local electricians on a high-profile development project in Niagara Falls.
State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, used a presentation to the planning board by representatives from Norampac to publicly question the company’s decision to hire a Louisiana firm for electrical work tied to the construction of a new $430 million plant off Packard Road.
Coming to the defense of members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 237, Grisanti chided Norampac officials for what he described as their failure to consider local electricians for jobs to be performed under the second-phase of the plant’s construction. Grisanti vowed to work with fellow Republican state lawmakers, state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, and state Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, to delay the approval of an application for $142 million in state incentives earmarked for the project until Norampac executives satisfactorily addressed their concerns about the outsourcing of the electrical work. Grisanti said he wants the entire project to move forward but, in light of the hefty state aid package, he considers it “unacceptable” for the company to hire electricians from out-of-state.
“I’m on top of this thing,” Grisanti said. “I’m not going to let it go.”
Sitting behind him in the audience in city council chambers at city hall were dozens of IBEW members whom Grisanti said could use as much work as they can get in today’s economy.
“These are the faces of the people who are unemployed in this area,” Grisanti said.
Norampac is a division of Cascades, Inc., a Canadian company that has been producing packaging and tissue products since 1964. The company’s Norampac division oversees operations at 37 facilities in the United States and Canada, including Niagara Falls. The new plant is being built as part of a partnership by Norampac, Jamestown Container and the Montreal-based bank, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec. The partners formed a separate company, Greenpac, LLC, for the purpose of constructing the new facility which will manufacture lightweight linerboard made from 100 percent recycled fibers. Once completed, the plant will be home to the largest containerboard production machine of its kind in North America. Full production is slated to begin in 2013.
Luc Nadeau, vice president of Norampac’s affiliate, Greenpac Mill, and Marc Romanowski, an associate with the company’s law firm, Harter, Secrest and Emery, attended Wednesday’s meeting to ask the planning board for a one-year extension for a property layout tied to the site plan for the expansion project. The extension is needed to give company officials more time to negotiate a deal to acquire 18 acres of property from the Midtown Little League whose ball fields are at 47th Street and Packard Road. The company wants the land for a parking lot.
The planning board approved the extension. Board member Mark Grozio abstained, saying he saw no reason why IBEW members shouldn’t be considered for the work.
“It’s a good project,” Grozio said. “Hopefully, this can be worked out a little bit better.”
In response to Grisanti, Nadeau noted that the new plant will feature a state-of-the-art paper machine and its installation will require what he described as specialized electrical work. He estimated that 40 percent of the work to be done by the Louisiana firm in the Falls will be given to local electricians.
“They might be in the 40 percent that are going to be hired,” Nadeau said.
Nadeau noted that the Greenpac project will result in creation of more than 100 new jobs at the site once completed and will provide as many as 200 more jobs during construction. He said the electrical contract in question is worth $12 million, a relatively small portion of the overall project value.
“It’s just a small piece of the puzzle,” Nadeau said.
Company spokesperson Geneviève Boyer noted that while the electrical contract was awarded to a Louisiana firm, other companies were invited to participate in the bidding process and at least one New York firm was considered. She estimated that of the $150 million in contracts awarded for the project to date, about $135 million worth were given to in-state firms.
IBEW business manager Russ Quarantello said what may be a “small” contract to the company is not small to members of his union. Quarantello said he did not see any reason why members of his union would not be capable of doing the type of work the Louisiana firm is being asked to do.
“It’s a lot of work,” Quarantello said, referring to the project. “It’s electrical work. My people are trained and they have all the necessary safety training.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced earlier this year that state economic development officials had agreed to provide Greenpac with a multi-million dollar incentive package, including $60 million in brownfield tax credits, 10 megawatts of hydropower from the New York Power Authority, $5 million in Empire Zone tax credits, $3.5 million in state-funded energy efficiency assistance and $500,000 in the form of a utility infrastructure grant from National Grid. Greenpac representatives joined local elected officials for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site in September.
Grisanti said he and Maziarz declined to attend the ceremony in light of concerns about the out-of-state electrical contract.
“That was not a happy day for Niagara Falls when you have workers from this area who are unemployed,” Grisanti said.
Grisanti also accused Greenpac representatives of spreading “misleading information” about its local hiring practices. He also suggested that he tried to discuss the situation with company executives privately but decided to go public with his concerns after they did not return his telephone calls.
Boyer said Norampac President and CEO Marc-André Dépin did respond to Grisanti’s inquiries. She added that company executives would reach out to Grisanti to discuss the situation in greater detail in the days ahead.