Syracuse, NY — Every time Onondaga County was rejected for a chip fab, County Executive Ryan McMahon doubled down, buying more land and betting that it would someday help him win the jackpot. Tuesday, it did.
Micron Technology on Tuesday announced what McMahon and a bone-tired team of state, federal and local advocates have known for a couple weeks: The company plans to spend up to $100 billion to build what could be the biggest chip fab in the country a few miles outside Syracuse.
The project would create up to 9,000 high-paying tech jobs plus as many as 40,000 jobs in construction, support services and supply chain companies.
“This is life-changing for the people of our state,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said.
It took nearly a year and a half of negotiation to win Micron’s favor, and it could not have happened without federal incentives championed by US Sen. Charles Schumer and state subsidies pushed by Hochul.
But along the way there were many smaller moments as a team of Micron executives based in Boise, Idaho, got to know and like Syracuse. Dinner in Armory Square. Runs along the Creekwalk. A trip to the JMA Dome. Chats with local business owners.
The hardest negotiations were about money. New York state is a relatively expensive place to build, and Micron’s board would never approve the project here unless the cost came down in line with other states like Texas.
McMahon and others say the talks sometimes got tense.
But along the way, through all the months of meetings, Central New York satisfied another Micron demand that really could not be negotiated: The Micron team decided Syracuse seemed like a good place to live.
April Arnzen, a senior vice president at Micron who was part of the site assessment team, said she and her colleagues learned to appreciate Central New York life. In part, that came from small moments like the runs that Arnzen and others on the team took along the Creekwalk.
“We explored. We spent more time here and we realized this was a destination that our employees would want to be in,” said Arnzen, the company’s chief people officer. “You’ve got this opportunity to be in the city, this more urban lifestyle if you like, which some of our talent wants to be there. And you’ve got all of these great rural communities. So the more time we spent here, we were sold.”
Some called it a ‘failed dream’
Winning the Micron deal started with the land.
Three years ago, during McMahon’s first year in office, the county’s White Pine Commerce Park in the town of Clay was just 339 acres, some of which were unbuildable wetlands.
Since then McMahon has spent more than $25 million of taxpayer dollars to buy up land – often amid hoots of anger and ridicule — in a “calculated risk” that he could land a mega-project big enough to, in his words, change local history.
Now the site is nearly 1,400 acres and growing. Just last week, the county industrial development agency paid another $3.8 million to add 60 acres, according to property records.
On top of that, the county has committed $200 million to upgrade wastewater facilities serving the site.
McMahon had eyed the White Pine sight for a chip fab since 2017, when Marilyn Higgins, a former National Grid official, pointed out to him the site’s unique advantages: robust electric service – a giant 765-kilovolt transmission line passes nearby – plus plenty of water directly from Lake Ontario.
McMahon was convinced that all he needed to do was make the site big enough and he could compete for a mega-sized chip fab. That belief was confirmed by chip makers, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Intel Corp.
White Pine was a finalist for both companies as they looked for places to build, McMahon said. TSMC executives visited Syracuse but chose to build in Phoenix, Ariz., in May 2020, when the White Pine site was still too small. Intel Corp. decided in January 2022 to build near Columbus, Ohio, but gave White Pine a serious look, McMahon said.
Finally, Micron said yes.
“New York state’s only getting this project because of the White Pine site,” McMahon said. “There is not another site in New York state that could do this project.”
In early 2019, when White Pine was just over 300 acres, McMahon’s vision for the place was almost cut short. A landowner was preparing to sell 106 acres near the heart of the site for use as a solar farm, a prospect that would have doomed McMahon’s efforts to assemble a large, contiguous site.
County officials called the landowner and quickly negotiated to pay extra to get the land, said Robert Petrovich, the county’s economic development director. The county paid about $900,000, he said.
“She was literally about to sign a contract to sell this to the solar company,” Petrovich said. “We swooped in at the last minute and paid a premium for the property. But at the same time, it was so critical that it had to happen.”
Critics wondered why the county was spending money on a site with no tenant under contract.
“Onondaga County should stop plowing public money into a failed dream to attract a major manufacturer to the town of Clay,” said an editorial in this publication.
A call from Schumer
Discussions with Micron started in early 2021 with an introduction from Schumer’s office, McMahon said. At the time, Schumer was talking with Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra about Schumer’s pending Chips Act legislation while also nudging him to build in New York.
Schumer’s relentless pursuit of the legislation, and of Micron, were critical, McMahon said. The legislation provides big grants plus investment tax credits for semiconductor manufacturers that build in the US
“There was no one more tenacious, really, than I’ve ever seen in my career than Senator Schumer in that process,” McMahon said.
In those early days, Micron evaluated several potential sites in New York but decided that White Pine was the only one that would work, McMahon said. The company was also looking at sites in Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin, McMahon said.
A few months later, Micron hired a professional site selection firm to compare the competing sites. As White Pine was compared to other states, New York and the county were repeatedly pressured to provide more financial help.
“They’re beating you up on incentives,” McMahon said of the meetings. “You think incentives don’t matter? Incentives are everything. At the end of the day you cannot be the most expensive state they’re looking at.”
Kevin Younis, executive deputy commissioner at Empire State Development, was a regular in meetings and calls with the Micron team. There were difficult discussions about money, he said. At the same time, Younis, a Syracuse native, said the Micron executives clicked with the Central New York team on issues like employment diversity and environmental sustainability.
“There was a moment where we just went, wow, this company cares about the things we care about,” he said.
Hochul said she began pursuing a deal with Micron within weeks after she succeeded Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August 2021. She invited top executives from Micron to her Albany office in September in one of her first official meetings as governor, she said.
When Hochul asked Mehrotra to tell her what he needed for a deal, he mentioned that New York’s labor costs – particularly for construction workers – were higher than other places where Micron considered making an investment.
Hochul said she responded quickly to craft a project labor agreement with unions that leveled the playing field with other states. The agreement will be in effect for the next 20 years as Micron builds its complex of mega-chip plants.
The financial negotiations dragged on for months, as passage of Schumer’s Chips Act seemed to stall in Congress. At the same time, Hochul pushed her Green Chips legislation in Albany, which gave Micron the opportunity to earn $5.5 billion in refundable tax credits over 20 years.
Hochul finally signed the legislation Aug.11. President Biden signed the Chips Act Aug. 9.
Without both of those, the Micron deal could not happen, McMahon said. The Republican county executive said he worked well with the Democratic governor and Senate majority leader.
“This was the greatest bipartisan site attraction team that we’ve ever put together,” he said.
‘We’re believers now’
Months before the legislation passed, Younis said, he believes Micron executives had decided they wanted to land in Syracuse if the numbers worked. During January 2022, Mehrotra and a team of about 10 people from Micron came to Syracuse for a series of meetings.
They met with several technology companies in the Syracuse area — including JMA Wireless, Lockheed Martin and Saab Sensis — to talk about their successes and challenges in attracting skilled workers.
Hochul flew to Syracuse to meet the Micron folks at Lemon Grass, a Thai restaurant in Armory Square. The idea, Hochul said, was to make a quick, informal pitch for the company to build at White Pine.
“I intended to meet with them for cocktails, and it ended up being a three-hour dinner,” Hochul told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.
“I was actually able to talk to them about not just Upstate and the incredible assets we have, but also as someone who lived there for four years at Syracuse University,” Hochul said.
During the dinner, Hochul said, she talked about the legacy of a strong work ethic ingrained in Upstate New Yorkers dating back to the region’s industrial boom two generations ago.
Hochul told Mehrotra how her grandfather worked his entire career at Bethlehem Steel and generations from the same family worked at plants like General Electric and Carrier Corp. in Syracuse.
It was a good time to be in downtown Syracuse, Younis recalled. There was a show at the Landmark Theatre. The Salt City Market was bustling.
The Micron folks liked what they saw.
“At some point, one of them said to me something like, ‘We were skeptical when we got here. We’re believers now,’ he said.
Staff reporter Mark Weiner contributed to this story.
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