Rockets and Robots and Electric Engines, Oh My
From a company that plans to develop an ultra-efficient rocket to launch satellites into outer space to a firm that plans to electrify commercial truck fleets to a robotics company involved in work ranging from digging utility trenches to inspecting offshore wind turbine platforms, there are many potential industrial uses for the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL). The question is: will these potential tenants be viable companies for the long haul?
Representatives from Calverton Aviation & Technology (CAT), which is in contract to purchase more than 1,600 acres of the former Grumman plant in Calverton owned by Riverhead Town, brought three of its potential tenants to explain their work to the Riverhead Town Board at its Oct. 17 work session.
CAT’s attorney, Chris Kent, has promised numerous times that CAT plans to bring a “Silicon Valley of the East” to EPCAL, but town board members are wary of the deal, in part because it originated with a contract with Luminati Aerospace, an aerospace composite company that has since had serious financial troubles and whose CEO, Daniel Preston, is still a non-voting partner in CAT, charged with attracting other tenants to the EPCAL site.
CAT is owned by Triple Five Real Estate One, LLC, a division of the Ghermezian family’s worldwide multi-billion dollar company, which owns the Mall of America in Minneapolis and New Jersey’s American Dream megamall and entertainment complex, which opened in late October.
The three firms that explained their work at the work session are Launcher, a Brooklyn-based rocket company whose founder, Max Haot, had already laid out a proposal at CAT’s Qualified & Eligible hearing before the town board in early 2018 and has been testing rockets at EPCAL since 2017; Unique Electric Solutions, which has received a grant from the New York State Energy Research Development Agency to retrofit UPS trucks with electric motors; and ULC Robotics International, headquartered in Hauppauge, which plans to manufacture robotic excavators and multi-rotor and hybrid electric Vertical Takeoff And Landing (VTOL) aircraft, which are fixed-wing unmanned aircraft that also have rotors that allow them to take off and land like a helicopter.
“This is really such a special place for us,” said ULC Robotics founder and CEO Gregory Penza at the Oct. 17 work session. “It’s a fantastic piece of land, with beautiful runways…. This site is well-suited for pilot training.”
Mr. Penza said his firm expects to be very involved with the nascent offshore wind industry, and has already worked with Deepwater Wind using drone-based robots to inspect the foundations of its five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm. He said the technology can also be trained to spot whales and dolphins using thermal imaging and visual cameras to augment human spotters on boats who would be in charge of halting construction if marine mammals are passing through the area.
“We will be persistently flying VTOL aircraft over the areas where wind turbines are under construction,” he said. “It’s a superior vantage point.”
He said his firm could employ 28 pilots and 25 support staff for offshore wind alone.
Unique Electric Solutions’ general manager, Joe Ambrosio, said his company is looking to use the NYSERDA grant to upgrade 1,500 New York City UPS trucks from diesel to electric by 2022, which would make 66 percent of the New York City UPS fleet electric. He said he would like his firm, which is currently in Hauppauge, to do the work at EPCAL.
Mr. Haot, of Launcher, said his company has raised $3.7 million and has applied for a $3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force for his work. He estimated his company would need to raise about $60 million to reach orbit. While the rockets wouldn’t be launched from Riverhead — they can only be launched from Kennedy Space Center and Wallops Island in Virginia — they can be built and tested here.
The town is currently waiting for its subdivision map of the EPCAL property to be finalized, which its attorneys said is expected to take about five or six months, and the town will also need to extend sewer and water lines to the portion of the property that CAT is purchasing. As of a mid-summer meeting with CAT at town hall, town board members estimated CAT’s purchase would close around May of 2020.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith was wary of the proposals, in a week when community members brought a petition to the town board with more than 800 signatures on it asking the town to not let CAT develop 1,000 acres of protected grasslands that were included in the deal. Just 600 acres of the transferred land could be used for industrial development.
“There’s a lot of public concern about bulldozers coming in and filling in wetlands and mowing down grasslands,” said Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.
“We have no plans to fill in the wetlands or disrupt grassland habitat,” said Mr. Kent. “We’re looking to expand grassland habitat.”
Deputy Town Supervisor Catherine Kent added that the board had not been given details of how the developers plan to pay for the construction, and Ms. Jens-Smith added that “Triple Five’s financials have changed significantly since the qualified and eligible hearing,” stating that the company had leveraged some of its other properties to complete the American Dream mall.
“CAT is going to live up to all its obligations,” said Mr. Kent, adding that the firm plans to invest $1 million in upgrading runways and build at least one million square feet of commercial and industrial space at the site, as it promised in its contract to purchase the property.
David Pennetta, Executive Director & Managing Broker of the Long Island office of Cushman & Wakefield, which is representing the town in the real estate transaction, said he understands why Triple Five is not bringing in more potential tenants to speak to the town board.
“This process is taking a long time,” he said. “There have been a number of false starts over the past 20 years. Companies out there are coming to us and they’re saying ‘we’re very interested. The real estate market is very tight on western Long Island, but we don’t want our name associated with this unless something happens.’”
He added that many companies don’t want their employees to quit if they hear their company is going to Riverhead if the deal later doesn’t happen.
“I don’t think they’re being catty in not being able to answer [questions],” he said. “The market could change. There’s a national election. There’s a lot of demand for the property if it gets to the point of being able to move forward.”
“We’ve never been where we are today. To me this is very encouraging and positive,” said Councilman Jim Wooten. “I’m excited. I have a 15-year-old daughter who’s ready to jump into this.”