It's fitting that the fate of Kodak's massive industrial complex on West Ridge Road, at least for the foreseeable future, will be tied to film.
Kodak was born out of George Eastman's desire to bring photography to the masses. And his invention of roll film made the company an American manufacturing giant.
Film is also what led Kodak to rethink its role at the former Kodak Park, which has evolved into Eastman Business Park. The reinvented park is a multi-tenant operation which caters in large part to growing tech-oriented companies. Kodak has sold or leased space to 58 tenants, ranging from larger established operations like LiDestri Foods to battery start-ups and collaborative labs.
"There's no doubt it's an asset now. It's stable, it's growing, there's new jobs and new companies coming in there," says Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise, a regional economic development agency. "Now the question is, how do we maximize that asset?"
And film has, in a way, provided a path. The new, post-bankruptcy Kodak mostly provides products and services to other businesses, and Eastman Business Park is, in a way, one of those products. When a company leases space in the park, it has the ability to hire Kodak to help develop chemicals, scale-up manufacturing, or analyze a product's performance.
Because of that, many Rochester-area elected and business leaders see Eastman Business Park as a crucial economic engine for the region. It's a place where new products will be developed, refined, and produced, and where workers with vocational skills or advanced science degrees will find jobs.
But there came a point last year when Kodak wanted out of the landlord business — even though it was deeply involved in the park's operations. As the company worked through bankruptcy and contemplated an exit from the film-manufacturing business, Kodak put the Eastman property on the market. Company and local leaders wanted to put the complex in the hands of someone who could invest in the infrastructure and recruit new businesses.
Kodak, however, is keeping the park. The company's new leadership, including CEO Jeffrey Clarke, made the decision in the spring, a few months after Kodak and major movie studios inked a deal for Kodak to produce film for the studios. The deal was backed by big-time directors J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and others.
The pact means that Kodak needs a place to make the film. And Eastman Business Park is the logical choice.
The company's decision to hold onto Eastman ends the last lingering bit of uncertainty around the park and should help recruit new tenants. During the bankruptcy proceedings, Kodak sold the park's utility systems and reached a settlement with the state and federal governments so that current and future park tenants aren't liable for Kodak's past pollution. Both of those moves addressed concerns that tenants and economic development officials had and brought stability to the complex.
By keeping Eastman Business Park, Kodak steps back into a familiar role as a driving force of Rochester's economy. And it's staking its place in the region's diversifying tech economy.
In Eastman Business Park, the company has found a way to apply the expertise, equipment, and facilities it built up during decades of film manufacturing to cutting-edge technologies.
At its simplest, photo and movie film is made by coating a flexible base material with chemicals. And many of the companies that have moved into Eastman Business Park are researching ways to use that fundamental manufacturing technology in products such as solar cells, batteries, fuel cells, and touch-screen sensors.
"This new leadership team, they have a lot of confidence that they're going to be able to pursue interesting new partnerships and to bring new programs under the roof of the Kodak umbrella," says Kodak spokesperson Kelly Mandarano.
And to many in the local business, economic development, and academic communities, that's an exciting proposition.
Kodak and economic development officials are focused on growing three types of industries at Eastman Business Park: functional films for things such as sensors or touch screens, biomaterials, and energy technologies.
During a recent meeting of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, park director Mike Alt said that Kodak will add a fourth focus area: agriculture and food processing.
The park already has a major food-production tenant in LiDestri Foods, which owns more than 40 acres of land and has 625,000 square feet of building space. The Fairport-based company was an early tenant of the park, and has steadily expanded its operations.
In April, LiDestri announced a partnership with a United Kingdom company, G's Fresh, to form Love Beets USA, which will produce organic beet products. The companies plan to invest $17 million to construct a 100,000-square-foot beet-processing facility at LiDestri's Eastman Business Park complex, creating 50 new jobs by the end of the year and 140 jobs within five years. Most of the beets should come from New York farmers.
Columbia Care also plans to put a 204,000-square-foot medical-marijuana growing and dispensing operation in the park. The company has received one of five medical-marijuana licenses from the state, and has a seven-year lease agreement with Eastman Business Park.
So how does all this fit with a place better known for film, printers, chemicals, batteries, and solar power?
The answer comes down to utilities and transportation. Eastman Business Park has a dedicated high-volume water supply and rail lines that can deliver shipments right to some of the buildings. Both resources are incredibly valuable to food-processing companies, says GRE's Peterson. LiDestri, for example, brings in 10 railcars filled with tomatoes each day, he says.
Columbia Care representatives declined to talk about why they picked Eastman Business Park. But in a June press release announcing Columbia's plan, the availability of a large, secure space seemed to play a role. (Kodak had to maintain high-security areas for some of its government and defense work.)
Natcore Technology opened its 19,000-square-foot research and development facility at Eastman Business Park in 2012, making it another one of the complex's early tenants.
The company, which is commercializing solar-cell technology, recently signed another two-year lease for the space. But it also moved its company headquarters from Red Bank, New Jersey, to its existing offices on Water Street in the City of Rochester.
Many local officials would like to see other companies follow a similar pattern: a company comes to Eastman Business Park to do research or commercialization work and ultimately brings along other operations, such as manufacturing or sales. And officials say they're confident that will happen.
"So many companies these days want to have their research and development right next to their manufacturing facility, because there's a big disconnect if you don't do that," Peterson says. "And that's what everything at Eastman Business Park is geared toward."
Energy technology companies may hold some of the greatest promise for future growth at the park.
Last year, the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium opened its commercialization center at Eastman Business Park. The idea behind the $23- million facility is to help companies bring emerging technologies to market by giving them access to extensive testing and analytical equipment and services. It's open to all NY-BEST members, but is especially convenient for park tenants.
The facility has already helped draw three commercialization-stage battery companies, who are set to move into the park this year.
A new partnership between Kodak and the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory could also connect additional start-ups with Eastman Business Park. Oak Ridge officials wanted to tap into Kodak's knowledge of films and coating, and its experience bringing those technologies to market. And Oak Ridge scientists, in turn, will help park tenants if they have problems with their fundamental technologies.
"I think we're increasing the likelihood of success of the new technology to actually make it to market," says Claus Daniel of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
As more of the park's tenants make the transition to commercial production, they're going to need a different type of workforce. College grads with science and engineering degrees can do the research, but manufacturing tenants' technologies will require trained technicians who can operate complicated machinery.
That's why Monroe Community College officials, working with colleagues at Genesee Community College and Finger Lakes Community College, want to set up the Finger Lakes Regional Workforce Development Center at Eastman Business Park.
Todd Oldham, MCC's vice president of economic and workforce development, says that the school envisions a 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot facility that runs accelerated training programs in tooling and machining, optical systems technology, information technology, and mechatronics, which uses electronic devices to control complex industrial technology, including pneumatics and hydraulics.
MCC officials also want to develop an internship program at the facility, which would give students a chance to get hands-on experience at Eastman Business Park companies.
"When you think about being able to partner with those companies and get access to some of that from an instructional perspective, that's quite powerful," Oldham says. "It surpasses what we could do in a facility by itself, or even here at the college. You're not going to be able to create labs like that."
College officials are pursuing state funding for the facility, which carries an estimated $25-million cost and will operate in addition to MCC's Applied Technologies Center on West Henrietta Road. It'll provide additional space for accelerated programs, which are meant to meet known workforce needs across the region.
The White House recently announced that the Rochester region will be home to a new Department of Defense-backed photonics manufacturing institute. The effort will mean over $600 million in federal, state, and industry investment in space for a company headquarters and labs, though not all of the money will be spent in the region.
Much still has to be decided about the new institute, but the planning efforts will tie directly into the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council's application for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. Under that program, seven Upstate regions will compete for one of three $500 million state economic development awards.
Both efforts — photonics and URI — will emphasize industries and industry clusters, and though it's not clear what Eastman Business Park's role will be in them, it's almost certain to tie in somehow.
"Certainly, EBP will be a player because things like energy and manufacturing and everything will be a part of that," Peterson says of the URI. "But to what extent that site alone will play a role in things like optics, for example, and photonics remains to be seen."
The URI application is also expected to emphasize the region's agriculture and food- production industries, and the park could play a role in those plans, too.
No matter what role the complex has or doesn't have in the two broader efforts, it's clear that the region's top elected leaders and economic development officials believe in the park. No longer do they see it as a crisis waiting to happen, but as a continuing opportunity for the Rochester community.
"I don't lose sleep anymore about Eastman Business Park," Peterson says. "I used to, but I don't now."