ENDICOTT, NY – The sidewalks along Washington Avenue in Endicott, NY are empty enough for bikes to ride their length with gentle sails. But 40 years ago, when an IBM factory was buzzing with thousands of employees, the cyclists might have chosen a different route.
“You couldn’t look down the street at lunchtime because there were so many people,” said Mary Morley, owner of Angeline’s Flowers, one of the few storefronts with no “For Rent” sign. “It used to be a very nice place.”
Wistful memories of yesteryear have been a pastime in the Southern Tier and Hudson Valley areas of New York state since IBM began demolishing operations and closing factories in the 1980s. In fact, the entire region was once sort of an expanded corporate town for the tech giant who started there and fueled much of its housing and retail growth. When Big Blue left, economic pain ensued.
But the big campuses that are still key to economic recovery, in places like East Fishkill, Ulster, and Endicott, say business leaders working to reinvent them.
Lined with warehouses, well served by utility companies, and close to major highways, the campuses are ideal for tenants involved in large-scale manufacturing and shipping, a segment of the industrial market that has grown during the pandemic, they say.
And the pandemic-induced relocation of New Yorkers north has brought a potential new workforce within reach and added momentum to the redevelopment effort.
“Companies shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily just to disappear. Taxpayers have paid for all of their roads, ”said Lynne Ward, executive vice president of National Resources, a Connecticut-based developer buying empty industrial parks across the country. “But a great infrastructure has remained.”
In East Fishkill, the town in Dutchess County where IBM once had more than 600 acres along Interstate 84, the good bones seem particularly appealing to food companies. Since National Resources bought 300 acres in 2017 and renamed it iPark 84, it has rented space to companies that make cookies, cocktail syrups, and crpes.
This fall, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, a milk supplier based nearby, will be there on a 3,000 square meter berth. (IBM also rents iPark, and Global Foundries, the semiconductor maker that bought most of IBM’s chip manufacturing equipment in 2014, owns a 160-acre lot.)
To create a lively scene, National Resources is building a barn-like wing next to one of its manufacturing buildings so that any food produced there can be sold to the public in a grocery store, Ms. Ward said.
The complex, which cost $ 300 million to buy and renovate, is 90 percent rented, she said. Apartments and hotels are also being considered for the location, she added.
“This is where revitalization is happening, and it’s needed,” said Adam Watson, co-founder of Sloop Brewing, which moved to iPark because of its thick floors, high ceilings, and ease of sanitation. There is also a bar, the transparent surface of which is embedded with circuit boards discovered during a renovation.
“So many of our customers end up telling us stories about how they worked in this or that building,” said Watson.
Other sections were also busy. A 15 acre warehouse for Amazon is being developed on 124 acre property on the east side of East Fishkill by a team that includes the industry-focused Bluewater Property Group. The deal, which came with property tax breaks, will create 500 full-time positions, according to city officials, who rededicated the entire property in 2014 to attract new users. But the campus, which once made chips for the Sony PlayStation 3, employed 22,000 IBM people in its heyday, National Resources said. Bluewater had no comment and an IBM spokesman declined to provide historical employment numbers.
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The installation of non-IBM clients is of course no guarantee of success. The Amazon system will be located on a site that ten years ago belonged to the Linuo Group, a Chinese manufacturer of solar modules. Similarly, an adjacent 33-acre property is set to make way for the Sports KingDome, a sports facility, but little has been built since the project was announced in 2015.
On the other side of the Hudson River in the city of Ulster, redevelopment has also been difficult, although a new marketing push is hopeful. In the late 1990s, a project called TechCity promised to remodel much of IBM’s 258-acre campus.
But a dispute arose between the developer and officials over unpaid taxes and a required soil cleanup was not completed, causing delays. Today, signs in TechCity, sprawling under a rusted water tower, testify to what was once a robust list of tenants, even though only a handful of businesses remain. But this week Ulster County filed for foreclosure on the property on the unpaid $ 12 million tax bill.
While the trial continues, attention will be drawn to another piece of TechCity, an 80-acre two-building lot that was confiscated by officials in 2019 over a similar tax issue. That spring, the county received about two dozen proposals to redevelop or lease the site, including from a bakery, a nonprofit art group, and a local farm. Officials will announce their selection within weeks; Many winners are to be expected, they said, because it is too risky to have a single resident for so much space.
The 7,100 employees who worked at IBM that closed that location in 1995 were the driving force behind the area’s ranch-style homes and shopping malls, said Ward Mintz, a local historian. Now efforts to resettle the residents of the somewhat desolate area are gaining momentum with concerts on the huge lots where IBM employees once parked their cars on the way to manufacturing typewriters and air defense systems.
“We were trying to restore some life and energy to a sad place,” said Pat Ryan, Ulster County’s general manager, who nonetheless praised IBM, which employed his grandfather for 36 years even though he never graduated from high school.
Other former IBM properties in Ulster are also being redesigned.
That summer, RBW, a 14-year-old Brooklyn lighting design company, bought an 1980s office building for its new home. The pandemic inspired the move, said Alex Williams, an RBW co-founder who moved to his weekend home in the area after the coronavirus hit New York. Many workers at RBW who employed 55 prepandemic are also expected to move, although he has also hired on site.
A renovation will tear out carpets printed with the shapes of chairs, Williams said, and add a 1,200-square-foot tree-lined courtyard as part of a $ 7 million project.
“Twenty years ago it might have been trendy to revitalize a factory,” he said. “But I think it’s very interesting to have a blank canvas that is kind of ‘Dilbert’.”
A diverse mix is also very important at Endicott, which is located on the Susquehanna River and housed IBM’s first plant in 1906; it made punch cards, data storage devices that were sort of prototypes of computers. Huron Real Estate Associates, which bought the 139 acre campus for $ 65 million in 2002, has attracted around 20 tenants, including BAE Systems, a European defense company.
This summer comes iM3NY, a start-up that makes lithium-ion batteries.
The company, whose product powers electric cars, has 12 full-time employees but expects 2,000 in six years, said Paul Stratton, senior vice president. His company moves into two buildings at IBM, including a 300,000 square meter space that was once used for shipping printed circuit boards.
“There is great potential for transformation here,” said Christopher Pelto, President of Huron, about the complex, which has a utilization rate of 65 percent.
If Mr. Pelto achieved his goal of one day employing 5,000 people at the Endicott site, down from 4,000 today, he would still be way below IBM’s peak in the early 1980s when 15,000 people toiled there and at a site in nearby Glendale .
But some local residents say maintaining some of the ramshackle buildings that regularly commemorate the village’s glory days is a more pressing issue, says Marlene Yacos, who worked for IBM for 35 years before being fired in 2004; her father worked there himself for 44 years.
“You just sit there,” said Ms. Yacos, executive director of the Endicott History and Heritage Center. “And they have been our legacy for more than 100 years.”