An excavator drops dirt into a truck at Panasonic Corp.'s former solar panel plant in east Salem on Aug. 29. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
Construction workers have been busy at a closed solar panel factory in east Salem, but mystery shrouds their work.
Sources in the know declined to tell Salem Reporter who may be setting up shop at 5475 Gaffin Road, a property that has been unused for nearly two years.
Public records show the property has new owners, new plans, the temporary moniker “Project Expedite,” and could employ more than 300 people.
Mayor Chuck Bennett, city Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford, a regional economic development leader and a real estate agent involved in the property said they couldn’t talk, limited by non-disclosure agreements they have signed.
The 130,000-square-foot facility — roughly four times the size of a grocery store — has been unoccupied since late 2017, when Panasonic Corp. shut down its solar panel hub and laid off 92 workers, according to newspaper archives.
[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG - SUBSCRIBE ]
New York-based real estate firm Reich Brothers bought the property for $7.7 million in March 2018, according to property records. Company representatives didn’t return calls seeking more information.
The building, which opened in 2010, has been generally hard to fill with a new business because it is still outfitted specifically to manufacture solar panels, said officials whose job it is to recruit and retain companies in the region.
“It’s a beautiful building, relatively new in the scheme of things, but it was built for a specific purpose,” said Erik Andersson, president of Strategic Economic Development Corp. “Other than getting another similar type of company to do a similar type of process in there – which is a lot harder – somebody was going to have to do some improvements.”
Andersson also couldn't talk about the latest developments.
But work started in a hurry to prepare the site for some company, public records show, that is likely to add even more warehouse and distribution jobs to the region.
Permit records show there had hardly been any activity on the building from Panasonic's closure all the way through summer 2019. Then, in June, the city approved a permit for building renovations.
Since then, city planners have approved permits for crews to move water lines and grade fields. Excavators on Wednesday scraped at the property's southeastern fields.
The excavators' work, according to a site plan approved Aug. 16, will eventually lead to surface parking for employees and vans. The review says the center is expected to have 320 workers at its busiest hours.
The plan refers to the project as "Project Expedite." It says the new site will become a spot for "warehouse and distribution," likely adding even more such jobs to the Salem area.
Online retailing giant Amazon is in the midst of hiring 800 people to staff its new fulfillment center.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.
The sign outside the former Panasonic Corp.'s solar panel plant. Construction is underway to turn the building into a new use, which records say could employ more than 300 people. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)