Nebraska’s first solar panel manufacturer will open up shop in Beatrice, ultimately bringing with it more than 100 local jobs. Rare Earth Solar, a start-up solar panel manufacturer, chose Beatrice over four other Nebraska communities as its headquarters to create a new brand of solar panels.
Allen Kruse, Rare Earth Solar's co-founder and CEO, said the company is looking at purchasing the former Husqvarna building, a 274,000-sq. foot facility located north of Beatrice on U.S. Highway 77.
“Money has not exchanged hands yet, but agreements are in place to where within months we will officially be moving into the Husqvarna building,” Kruse said. “One big factor in our decision to come to Beatrice was the fact that a nice building was available.”
The Husqvarna building has been vacant since the turf care company consolidated its operations with its U.S. headquarters in Orangeburg, S.C. last May, eliminating more than 300 jobs from the 274,000 sq. foot Beatrice facility at the end of 2010.
John DeHardt, a managing principal for Kessinger-Hunter, the owner of the former Husqvarna building, said he has entered into a purchase contract with Rare Earth Solar, but the company is able to cancel the contract at anytime.
“It’s not a certainty until they actually close,” DeHardt said. He added Rare Earth Solar has some flexibility in its decision.
Husqvarna is still obligated to honor its lease through 2015, DeHardt said. In the meantime, however, he and city officials have been aggressively marketing the building.
“Naturally the smart thing was to market the building for the next occupant, which we did,” DeHardt said. “We were fortunate and I think the city of Beatrice was fortunate, that Rare Earth Solar has chosen that building to possibly move into.”
Although the deal is not done on DeHardt’s end, he said the potential is “encouraging.”
“As far as I can tell, it looks encouraging, but from my end it’s hard to say for sure,” DeHardt said.
Kruse said the building’s size was a major selling point for Rare Earth Solar. Though the company will not make use of the entire structure immediately, Kruse anticipates substantial growth over the next 5-10 years.
As the company grows, Neal Niedfeldt, city administrator and Board of Public Works manager, said the city may replace a major utility customer it lost with the parting of Husqvarna.
“We don’t know what their requirements are for this type of a startup operation, but we hope to see increased usage in around 18 months,” Niedfeldt said. “It’s exciting and we’re really pleased we were able to get the building filled in that amount of time. No community wants a building that size to be vacant and certainly the added jobs are an economic plus.
“They won’t grow overnight, but if they’re successful, we may have a facility out there comparable to what we had with Husqvarna.”
Niedfeldt said when Husqvarna was in operation in Beatrice, it spent more than $520,000 on electricity and used 4 million gallons of water annually.
Rare Earth Solar will produce solar panels unique with a thin design and dark color, making an aesthetically pleasing design, Kruse said.
Kruse and Brewer met in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and formed Rare Earth Solar last August.
The company’s manufacturing will be located entirely in Beatrice, though a small satellite office will be maintained in Lincoln for research in conjunction with UNL.
Rare Earth Solar also hopes to have a joint venture with Southeast Community College-Beatrice, though details are still being worked out, Kruse said.
Kruse said by the end of the year, Rare Earth Solar will employ between 20-30 people, mostly upper level technical workers.
Beginning in the second quarter of 2012, Rare Earth Solar plans to begin hiring lower level management and maintenance in preparation for the summer of 2012, when the manufacturing equipment will begin to arrive.
In addition to the initial 20-30 workers, approximately 90 more full-time workers will be hired through 2012.
“One big thing here is we will have full-time jobs, not seasonal or part-time,” Kruse said. “Hired means hired. We don’t have busier seasons or anything like that, well never run into any of those issues.”
Kruse, a native of International Falls, Minn., has already relocated with his family to Beatrice to begin setting up the business, while co-founder Joseph Brewer will be making the move soon.
Mayor Dennis Schuster, who has been supportive in bringing less-traditional manufacturing jobs to Beatrice, said the building will be a major asset to a town stricken with job loss over the last year.
“For one thing, it’s exciting because it’s something different than the traditional business,” Schuster said. “It’s a new product line for the area and also takes the Husqvarna building. We were all worried about how we were going to fill that space, and it got filled quick.
“It’s great to have this company coming, considering we’ve lost quite a few jobs. They’re not going to start with hundreds of people, but they will keep growing and it’s going to help.”
Lori Warner, president of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce agreed with Schuster’s assessment in the importance of diversifying Beatrice’s workforce.
“The chamber has been focused for awhile, whether we’re working with entrepreneurs or small business, we don’t want to keep going after the same thing,” Warner said. “This helps diversify us. We’re hoping with this company and what they do can bring other businesses to town to make Beatrice more diverse than what we were in the past.”
“This will help those other businesses look at Beatrice as well,” she added.
Having Rare Earth Solar set up in Beatrice will also help raise the level of the workforce, Warner explained. The solar panel manufacturer will bring chemists and engineers back to Beatrice, preventing a “brain drain” of Beatrice students from leaving the area.
“We always talk about brain drain, about Beatrice kids leaving the community,” Warner said. “This is the type of company that could bring those kids back. They’re still going to have line workers, but they will have people in their labs as well.”
Rare Earth Solar will also have “good paying jobs with full benefits,” Warner said, “something that will help Beatrice in the long run.”
Warner said the group was thrilled to learn of Rare Earth Solar’s choice of Beatrice as its headquarters.
“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to have this type of business in our community,” Warner said. “It is wonderful.”
The chamber and city officials have worked with Kruse and Rare Earth Solar over the past eight months to secure a site for the company in Beatrice. Warner said the chamber acted as a conduit between the city and Board of Public Works and Rare Earth.
“There’s been a lot of back and forth between the different entities and waiting to hear back,” Warner said. “A lot of it is hurry up and wait and Allen Kruse has done a wonderful job of not giving up on any aspect of it.”
Warner said the chamber worked to finding answers to many of Kruse’s questions both big and small.
“It would be something as simple as finding out what the building spent on electricity the last two years or finding a place for Allen to live,” Warner said.
When told of the news Friday afternoon, Gov. Dave Heineman said “It’s fantastic news and more jobs for Nebraska.”