How did this one-time spy site become a hemp operation? Here's what's next for Kodak's Hawkeye Plant
Responding to a burglary at Kodak’s former Hawkeye Plant last month, police encountered dozens of looters fleeing the property or still inside.
A swarm of squad cars eventually encircled the property. In the chaos, thieves dropped gold-sequined hightops, purses, boxes of screws and other sundry items.
The spectacle was the latest chapter for a storied property that has long been cloaked in secrecy. But what investigators found as they searched the cavernous complex for stragglers would come as even more of a surprise.
For decades, the plant was home to a clandestine Cold War-era surveillance program and other top-secret government programs. More recently, a group of Chinese investors bought the complex, promising to fill it with low-rent apartments, offices, and an e-commerce hub for foreign goods.
“A job-creating engine” was how Mayor Lovely Warren described it in 2018 when she and other dignitaries donned hard hats and corsages for a groundbreaking there.
Monroe County approved tax breaks. The state kicked in $1 million. None of the promises came true, though the plant was used to warehouse what appeared to be cheap foreign merchandise.
But as officers cleared the seven-building compound last month, they discovered a cannabis-growing operation so expansive that it ranked among the largest indoor enterprises in Monroe County.
There were barrels full of fertilizer. Hundreds of grow lights spanned nearly two dozen rooms. The cannabis plants were long dead, though, because the building’s owners couldn’t keep the lights on.
Now the owners, operating as WBS Capital Inc., have filed for bankruptcy, and put the Hawkeye Plant up for sale.
Those tax breaks are being canceled — not because of the pivot to growing cannabis, but the debts. WBS Capital owes more than $260,000 to the city and county in delinquent tax-related payments, which officials hope to recoup when the property is sold. Records show the company also owes more than $1 million to creditors, including Rochester Gas & Electric, and is being sued by a former investor and foreclosed on by its lender.
An auction is scheduled for Nov. 3. Among the features on a real estate listing: “23 rooms with over 1,000 lights, designed for hemp cultivation ... positioned within a cannabis-friendly city.”
Shrouded in secrets
The Hawkeye Plant sits at the edge of the Driving Park Avenue bridge, overlooking the Genesee River gorge.
And it’s massive: Seven interconnected buildings encompassing 760,000 square feet on a 12-acre campus. Kodak once described the complex as one of the company’s “most captivating landmarks … considered to be one of the finest examples of ‘Factory Art Deco’ in the world.”
Completed in the early 1940s, the focus of the Hawkeye Plant was research, development and manufacturing. That included a number of top-secret government programs. One, called Bridgehead in a nod to the location, employed hundreds at its peak. Workers processed satellite and other covert aerial images, providing key intelligence on Soviet military operations, notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But the property had been vacant for years when Warren joined WBS representatives and other local dignitaries for the October 2018 groundbreaking.
“Few buildings are embedded into Rochester’s DNA like the Hawkeye Plant,” Warren said then, recalling its prominence in Kodak’s heyday. In WBS she saw rebirth: “Kodak was always a global company, and we are still having this international appeal.”
WBS, led by President Xiaomei “Sally” Lu, announced it would invest $55 million in a phased redevelopment that state officials expected to be completed this year.
In court records, the company blamed the pandemic and souring U.S.-China relations for upending those plans, and the reason it chose “to pivot and reposition portions of the property to other uses.”
The property served as a mass vaccination site during the pandemic.
And WBS did invest, including in some remediation work, their bankruptcy attorney Scott Markowitz said. In court records, the company put its total outlay at $16 million, including those grow lights and numerous air handling units. The real estate listing puts the investment at $20 million.
“I would hope that if they have money that they can invest on that level that they would, in turn, make sure that they have covered their tax debt,” said Dana Miller, the city’s neighborhood and business development commissioner.
Miller and City Council member Mike Patterson joined Warren for that earlier groundbreaking. Miller said he didn’t know WBS had pivoted to cannabis. Neither did the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, which administered the tax breaks.
But Patterson claims he did.
'A new direction’
At the center of the grow operation is Lu’s husband, Jinneng “Bally” Bao. He is the listed contact for a company called BYM Group.
In April 2022, BYM obtained a hemp grower’s license from New York state, identifying the Hawkeye Plant as the production facility, and saying the product would be for cannabidiol, or CBD, as well as grain and food.
Patterson said a company representative told him at least a year ago that they had a hemp grower’s license.
“So I knew they were looking at going in that direction,” he said. “I actually introduced them to a gentleman who was ... coming through the area, looking for places and people to partner with.”
A quick explainer.
Hemp and marijuana are both derived from cannabis plants. The difference is the level of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. CBD helps with anxiety, pain and insomnia but does not produce a high. THC does. Hemp has little if any THC.
Police cannot be certain what kind of plants they found last month without testing. But because the plants were dead, officials said there was no actual product, and thus no reason to investigate.
BYM is not among the tenants identified in the bank’s foreclosure filing. Of the four that are, Bao founded two, according to his LinkedIn profile. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Bao and Lu have been active in western New York, with prominent but stalled projects involving the historic St. Mary’s Manor in Niagara Falls and the former AM&A's department store in downtown Buffalo. Both of those projects, as initially proposed, were to cater to Asian visitors and tourists.
The Niagara Falls project went dormant some time ago, and officials there canceled benefits. In Buffalo, the couple recently lost a court case claiming they defrauded an investor, and are in the midst of a legal fight over who controls the building.
Here in Rochester, COMIDA on Tuesday voted to rescind the tax breaks, citing the unpaid debts and unresponsive ownership. New York state terminated its $1 million grant award without releasing any of the money.
Court records show WBS stopped paying on its mortgage last October. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in March — trying to head off losing control of the Hawkeye Plant in the foreclosure proceedings.
By April, the building was without power. A transformer inside had failed, records show. It has yet to be repaired.
Markowitz, the company’s bankruptcy lawyer, said WBS representatives still are courting potential clients to generate revenue, and trying to raise money to pay off the mortgage and stop the auction.
“It’s a very old building,” Markowitz said. “It is not an easy building to figure out how to make it work.”
Miller, the city’s development commissioner, said he sees potential for reuse as warehousing, manufacturing, lab or office space. Even self-storage units.
But he said the city will not intervene.
“The city does not have any interest in acquiring it,” Miller said. “Nor do we have any resources to acquire it. It's a fairly expensive property. It's a very massive property.”
The 49,000 square feet of grow space registered with the state puts it among the largest of the licensed indoor hemp facilities in Monroe County, records show. Still, that accounts for less than 10% of the Hawkeye Plant’s total square footage.
“I was not aware that they were doing that,” Miller said of the grow operation. “But given the changes in laws related to cannabis, it isn't surprising.”
The minimum bid for the auction is set at $14 million.
WBS Capital bought the complex for $2.5 million in 2018, and claims it since has been appraised at $35 million.
Miller visited the Hawkeye Plant a few weeks ago, after the break-in, and said he found merchandise still strewn about outside. Police say the burglary was called in by a concerned citizen, and that the owners have yet to file a list or estimated value of what was taken.
Miller walked the area with the property manager, and said the building looked much like it did as the groundbreaking five years ago.
"But,” he added, “I really didn't get much past the front door.”