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Making it Here
The Bronx is a beachhead for boutique manufacturing.
A Smith Electric truck.
Courtesy Smith Electric

New industries are beginning to invest again in New York City, contributing to a more self-sufficient and sustainable city—albeit on a scale that is more boutique than mass. Fran Striker, vice president of operations at Smith Electric Vehicles, one of the new ventures, argues that selecting the former Murray Feiss building on Walnut Avenue in the South Bronx to develop their second American factory works on all levels. Not only will the new factory create a green product, electric trucks, but it will also provide 100 jobs in the city while capitalizing on the urban population for sales.

Electric trucks powering up.

Electric trucks function best in dense areas, and Striker emphasizes that they are perfect for city streets, as the speed and gearbox are ideal for multiple stops. They are also quiet and have no emissions. The company, which began 80 years ago in the U.K., making morning milk deliveries at dawn, does have a psychological hurdle to mount: Drivers are afraid of running out of battery power, and don’t like not knowing the location of their next charging station. But Striker notes that “urban delivery routes have a predictability so they are well suited to our trucks,” as is evident in the growing use of electric trucks by companies such as Frito-Lay, Staples, and Fresh Direct, among others, who work from early morning to before rush hour, and then charge up overnight.

The trucks are sold directly from their factories in Newcastle, England, and Kansas City, Missouri, without a dealership, which means that they can customize and control the trucks and then repair them locally. At the new factory, which opens this summer, the supply chain includes chassis and cabs shipped from the Czech Republic, batteries from Detroit, with electronic parts, metal fabrication, wires, and cables to be subcontracted to local New York manufacturers, providing more jobs. All will come together in the Bronx for assembly.

Smith Electric Vehicles chose the Bronx site because it was more efficient to ship to the Port of New York than all the way to Kansas City and back again and also for its visibility. “You can see it from the river, from the highway, and from the bridges to the Bronx, and it is just 15 minutes to Wall Street. So that when we go public, investors can come right to the factory to see the trucks being built,” said Striker, who believes that “localizing factories makes all the sense in the world.”

Supported by state and federal tax incentives, the subsidies involved—including Excelsior tax credit benefits from Empire State Development and tax exemptions approved by the New York City Industrial Development Agency—are not unlike those given to companies that want to locate in offshore Export Processing Zones in Asia. The new Smith factory is very much a showcase for what might be possible with boutique manufacturing. To underscore that point, the renovation includes converting the street wall of loading docks into a glass facade displaying the assembly and repair work. New York is already about performance; why not add a spectacle of making things in the city?

Nina Rappaport