Stony Brook center far behind schedule

Stony Brook's $35 million Advanced Energy Research and Stony Brook's $35 million Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Six years after Stony Brook University seized 245 acres through eminent domain to build an ambitious, seven-building research and development park, its vision has stalled.

Only two buildings have been constructed -- one is unoccupied and the other is not yet meeting expectations.

The $35 million Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, one of the most advanced, energy-efficient buildings in the country, was slated to open last fall. But it has been stymied by a sour economy, a lack of operating funds and security system problems -- though officials say staff could start moving in within weeks.

Also, some say the center's mission of funding itself through commercial agreements is hobbled by a university mandate that makes all new technology developed with state resources university property.

The building next door, the Center of Excellence in Wireless Technology -- a $50 million, 100,000-square-foot wireless R&D facility -- lists only 30 people on its touch-screen directory. Wireless center director Satya Sharma said four startup companies have space there but he declined to name them.

 

Pataki's vision for center

When conceived by former Gov. George Pataki in the early 2000s, the center was touted as a mecca for wireless development, potentially employing tens of thousands of workers and drawing $250 million in investments by 2008. Scores of companies had expressed interest in codeveloping technology with the university or taking up residence there.

"What I see is a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars," said Desmond Ryan, executive director for the Association for a Better Long Island, a developers group. "It looks like an empty office building that somebody walked away from."

To be sure, the centers in part are victims of a weak economy -- university budgets, like the state's overall, have been slashed, and companies that once expressed strong interest in expanding to the center have themselves seen revenue and research and development budgets cut.

Yacov Shamash, dean of Stony Brook's College of Engineering, who championed the park as the university's vice president of economic development, said the vision remains in place, if partly delayed and downsized.

"It's absolutely critical this was done," Shamash said of the project. "We're out of space on campus, and having that space allowed us to build a whole new economic model," he added, referring to the public-private partnership plan.

The combined $85 million in state grants used to build the two centers represents only part of the cost of the project.

Last year, Stony Brook and the state suffered a blow when the state Court of Claims ruled that the $26.3 million the state paid for the land seized from Gyrodyne Corp. in 2005 sharply undervalued the property. The state was ordered to pay an additional $98.6 million, plus some $42 million in interest, by Gyrodyne's calculation. A spokeswoman for State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is defending the university and the state in the case, declined to comment.

While Schneiderman has filed an appeal, the decision, if affirmed, could have far-reaching consequences for the park.

Shamash dismissed critics who cite the lack of progress on the center as evidence that the land seizure never should have occurred as unconstructive. "The problem is, it's water under the bridge, it's done, so now we have to make the best of it," he said.

As initially envisioned, the research and development park -- in addition to the wireless and energy centers -- was to include a nanoscience center, a computational and neuroscience center, a research and development "partners" center, a software incubator and a competitiveness institute. The park's website no longer lists the latter projects.

Shamash said he's hoping for funding approval to begin a medical technology facility in the next year or two, and possibly to build a corporate park that would lease space to big companies.

 

Pace of work questioned

Even some of Stony Brook's biggest advocates say the pace of progress at the research park, and specifically at the energy center, has been disappointing.

"I have been asking, Why aren't we open?" said state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), whose influence in Albany is credited with securing the $85 million to build the two centers. "They talked about an August-September [2010] ribbon cutting -- it's now May," he said last month.

LaValle said university staff told him the delay was caused by a problem with the security system at the energy center. But the fix came too late for the spring just ended.

Frank Cooper, a wireless center director whose former company, semiconductor giant ZMD, donated $16 million in technology, said, "Unfortunately they didn't do much with it."

Although "I get frustrated sometimes" with the pace of progress at the centers, Cooper said, "I know the intent of the center is above reproach."

Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow pointed to numerous research projects being done at the wireless center and elsewhere on campus as signs the initiative is vibrant. Officials also noted that both the wireless and energy centers hold annual conferences around the state that are widely attended.

"Programs and research being conducted under the auspices of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center have been operating for about three years; faculty, staff and companies are currently beginning to populate the new facility," she said in an email.

Sheprow said funding from federal, state and private investment has totaled $204 million since the wireless center's inception, and that the initiative has produced a total of 948 jobs through the fall of 2010. Though the building directory lists 30 people at the actual center, Sheprow said 65 associated faculty members and 290 students "work various hours of the day in the building."

The energy center, in addition to housing a NYPA office and six faculty members, will have a smart-grid demonstration area, an office for the New York Energy Policy Institute, an incubator lab for Idalia Solar Technologies and a battery lab for Brookhaven National Lab, Sheprow said. The energy center already has received a $500,000 grant from NYPA. The grant is one of many under review by the state inspector general.

 

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Funding an issue

Robert Catell, chairman of the Advanced Energy Center and a former KeySpan and National Grid executive, acknowledged that the lack of operational funds is an issue. "The government funding is not what it was so we have to look for outside funding," he said.

But some say even the hope of corporate funding could be doomed by restrictive intellectual property agreements that the university demands. Companies must essentially turn over rights to technology developed on campus, then lease it back.

Shamash acknowledged it's been an impediment for the R&D center, as it has been at universities across the country. It's such an issue that schools and big companies have formed a consortium to iron it out. He said there were some commercial projects under way at the center, but declined to name them.

Catell and LaValle both acknowledged the problem.

"People throw that at me," Catell said. "Yes, we have to address the intellectual property issues . . . If companies are funding the research, they are certainly entitled to a portion of the profits" through ownership.

LaValle said he is examining ways to address the patent issue: "I had been generically asking -- is it working? My sense is we need to refocus on that."

LaValle has hope that the R&D park will eventually fulfill its mandate. He noted that two new corporations, including CA Technology, are slated to take space there soon.

"I feel that the clock is ticking and that we need to move very aggressively and seize the opportunity that we have today," he said.

That said, "I have great faith in Stony Brook even though sometimes they move slowly," said LaValle. "But it's done with a plan."

 

The vision vs. the reality

 

Original Price for condemned land:$26.3 million

Now: $166 million, if a court judgment is affirmed

Jobs: In 2002, Former Gov. Pataki

predicted "tens of thousands of jobs."

Now: One building is empty the other lists 30 employees. Stony Brook says about 1,000 people have worked there.

Size: Original vision called for seven

buildings, including nanotechnology and neuroscience centers.

Now: Two buildings have been built; a support center is located in another building on the property.

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