Solar Seal glass panel manufacturer to become a top Norwich utility customer
Norwich — Two years ago, city and Norwich Public Utilities officials were reeling with the news that one of the top taxpayers and utility users, Freeport-McMoRan Copper Products, would close by that summer’s end.
This week, those same city leaders applauded completion of a deal that will bring a “transformative economic development opportunity” to the city, with potential utility usage three times what the copper rod manufacturing plant wrought, plus tax value of its massive, high-tech equipment.
Solar Seal Architectural LLC announced last November it planned to lease the vacant giant former Lightolier plant at 40 Wisconsin Ave. in the Stanley Israelite Business Park. The 50-year-old company based in South Easton, Mass., manufactures custom architectural glass panels for skyscrapers — like the Mohegan Sun tower, although Solar Seal did not manufacture those glass panels, Norwich plant director Ed Morse said Thursday.
But with skyrocketing inflation and ongoing supply chain issues, the company hit a short-term financial snag that threatened the planned 10-year lease-purchase option, Norwich Community Development Corp. President Kevin Brown said. Months of negotiations by city leaders, NCDC, Norwich Public Utilities and Solar Seal officials led to a proposed $1.05 million combined grant and loan package using the city’s American Rescue Plan Act federal grant that was approved by the City Council on Tuesday.
Solar Seal will receive a $350,000 economic development grant through NCDC as the administrator, one $350,000 no-interest loan payable in full by Sept. 1, 2023, and a second $350,000 no-interest loan payable in full by Sept. 1, 2024. The repaid loan money then can be reallocated to other economic development projects, NCDC attorney Mark Block said.
Brown said the company could bring NPU about $4 million in utility gross revenue per year. A city charter provision calls for the utility to pay at least 10% of gross revenues from electricity, water and natural gas to the city, meaning an annual payment of $400,900 from Solar Seal’s business.
In addition, Solar Seal pledged to donate $5,000 per year for 10 years to local community and civic events, will participate in local manufacturing pipeline job training programs and “make reasonable efforts” to hire at least 50% of the local workforce from the Norwich area. At full capacity, the plant is expected to employ about 100 to 120 workers.
City officials and members of the City Council especially thanked City Manager John Salomone for his role in the negotiations, ensuring local commitment from the company in exchange for the city’s ARPA investment.
“It was a transformative economic possibility for the city of Norwich,” Brown told the City Council on Tuesday. “A larger utility load than any other company that’s been positioned in the city before. An opportunity that is marked by a $30 million investment by the company and a 10-year lease that suggests their permanence for a global organization.”
Solar Seal is moving ahead rapidly with the transformation of the former Lightolier building. Morse said the first renovations were for employee features, such as offices and conference rooms. Walls have been added to create offices, an employee cafeteria with a coffee bar, snack machines, an air hockey table and picnic tables just outside.
“We wanted our team to feel comfortable here,” Morse said, “to have a place to disconnect.”
About a dozen workers have been hired, and the company has partnered with Prime Electric, located across Wisconsin Avenue, to install the high-power electrical systems.
Two transformers have been installed in the cavernous 200,000-square-foot manufacturing floor, with its 20-foot-high ceiling. Employees and contractors worked to install segments of a giant high-heat tempering furnace imported from Finland that will burn at 660 degrees Centigrade — 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit.
A large section of floor has been cleaned and coated with a smooth epoxy. An enclosure will be erected here as the “clean room,” where epoxy coating will be laminated onto safety glass.
“You don’t want dust getting in when you’re doing epoxy,” Morse said.
Newly arrived equipment, still wrapped in plastic, dotted the floor. One section will be where patterns will be embedded into glass panels designed for high stories to protect birds from crashing into them. Much of the right half of the floor will be the cutting area.
Specialty trucks will haul the raw material glass panels, some as large as 7.5-by-20 feet. A large crane will be delivered next week. Glass-moving equipment will carry the glass panels to the correct production line.
“It’s going to happen fast,” Morse said of the fit-out.
Production is expected to start within the next two to three months, and the plant should be in full operation by the fourth quarter of 2022.
Morse said the company is thankful for the assistance the city provided to help ease the cost of inflation and supply chain delays. “We needed a little help,” he said. “We feel we will have the volume to make good on our obligations.”
Solar Seal will serve mainly the Northeast market. Interest already is strong, and the plant hopes to expand its capacity soon.
“We already garnered enough interest that we’re not going to have enough capacity to meet demand,” Morse said.