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German investor pushes for building solar farm in St. Petersburg

When a group of European businesspeople looked toward New Jersey to launch a solar farm and manufacturing operation, a well-heeled German investor and a Tampa contractor pointed them instead to St. Petersburg.

Uwe Sterling, a German businessman with long ties to St. Petersburg, and Jeff Adams, vice president of Tampa-based Griffin contracting, became the point men for an effort to build Pinellas County's first major solar farm and establish with it a solar panel factory in St. Petersburg's Midtown.

Adams coordinated the business effort in the United States, while Sterling focused on a group of German businesspeople, which includes about 10 Germans who will visit the Tampa Bay area June 27-29 to meet with city and county officials, as well as local business leaders, including Progress Energy.

Until now, no one has disclosed the names of any of the key businesspeople involved in the project. All of the members of the group still have not been named.

"All I know is they're manufacturing solar in Germany," said St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse. "They were looking between us and New Jersey."

Adams, who had known Sterling for about 15 years, urged the German businessman to convince the group to make St. Petersburg the site of an urban solar farm, which is popular in Germany.

Urban solar farms make use of small tracts of land and building rooftops for placement of solar panels. The idea is for the German developers to produce the electricity and then sell it to Progress Energy or some other utility.

Looking at the concept, Adams said he believed the project would be ideal for St. Petersburg, since Sterling owns a home in the city and, after all, it is the Sunshine State. In addition, the time was ripe for development of a solar project, as the meltdown of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant raised fresh concerns about nuclear energy.

Adams hired Farias Marketing Group after some stalled negotiations to bring the project to Florida. "Everybody wants this to happen as quickly as possible," said Mario Farias, the marketing group's managing director, who accelerated the effort to bring the project here.

"Renewable energy is a market that was shunned for a number of years," Adams said. "The general climate for renewable energy has changed."

Understanding the project is critical for Adams because his firm will be the contracting company responsible the project as the so-called "qualifier" for the German investors and developers.

State law allows a contractor to operate under a licensed firm with the appropriate registration. So the German businesspeople will not have to obtain a separate license. They would operate under the license held by Adams' company.

On its website, Griffin Contracting Inc. says the company's management team has some 40 years of construction experience. The company was incorporated with the state in January 2008.

Sterling is a director of Maytree Trading Inc., which was first incorporated in 1996, and the past president of the now-dissolved UWE Sterling Investment Corp., which he first incorporated in 1992.

Sterling could not be reached for comment for this report.

The German business group is looking to establish a solar farm on a tract at least about 75 acres and possibly as large as 250 acres.

One site under consideration is the former landfill known as Toytown, just off of Interstate 275 in Pinellas County, south of the Roosevelt Boulevard exit. That property recently became available when developers of a proposed housing, retail and office complex backed out of the contract with Pinellas County.

Mike Meidel, economic development director for Pinellas County, has said he does not believe a solar farm is the best use for the site because it will not bring many jobs.

The German group expects the solar farm will bring about 100 jobs, and a manufacturing operation near the Pinellas Technical Education Centers in Midtown would create 160 more jobs.

Because the developers have yet to determine the actual location of the solar farm, clear regulatory hurdles and begin work on the project, it could be as long as two years before it comes to fruition.

"We want the jobs here," Farias said. "The actual solar climate in New Jersey is pretty good, but you can't buy more sunshine than here in Florida."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Egde on Facebook.

German investor pushes for building solar farm in St. Petersburg 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 10:11pm]

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