About 15 years ago, a retired military man appeared in Dover, New Hampshire with an audacious plan: he had a revolutionary design for midsized passenger aircraft, and he was going to start a company — Alliance Aircraft — to build them. He claimed to have solid interest from some of the world’s major air carriers, and he planned to build a factory in some underutilized mill buildings in the middle of town. Good jobs, economic activity, what could be better?
At the time, I was a reporter/anchor for New Hampshire Public Radio, and I did a story about the project. At first everything seemed ideal, but the more I looked into it, the shakier it became. When I talked to experts in aviation and finance, I learned that this guy wasn’t especially well known and that it’s harder than Hell to launch a successful startup in a capital-intensive field like that.
My report raised questions about the project’s viability and public officials’ enthusiastic embrace of same. In the end, Alliance Aircraft fizzled out. No plant, no planes. Mind you, it wasn’t a scam; the head guy was a true believer. There was little or no public investment involved; the project didn’t even get that far.
Which brings us to today in the Northeast Kingdom. If you haven’t read VTDigger’s latest story about Bill Stenger’s EB-5 project, go and do so. It is a must-read.
The story by Anne Galloway focuses on AnC Bio, the biotech facility planned for Newport and funded by EB-5 investment — the federal program that gives green cards to foreign investors who put money into job-creating projects that would otherwise go unfunded. And the story is so full of authentic jaw-dropping “Holy Shit” moments that my mind was drawn back to the halcyon days of Alliance Aircraft.
I’ll recount some of the lowlights here, but please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. It’s lengthy, but worth your time.
— AnC Bio Vermont is partnered with AnC Bio Korea, which has developed some promising products but has also been in severe financial straits for several years. How severe? Try “its headquarters was auctioned off in 2012” severe.
The Vermont firm is a separate corporation, but it’s entirely dependent on the Korean company for the intellectual property that would be the lifeblood of a Newport plant.
— Stenger’s group said nothing about AnC Bio Korea’s difficulties in its filings with investors or its communications with the state. Galloway: “State officials… weren’t aware of AnC Bio Korea’s problems until in the course of their own research in May 2014, they learned that the Korean headquarters had been sold at auction to satisfy banks and other creditors.”
— After learning of the Korea mess, the state ordered the Stenger group to cease any communication with investors about the Newport plan. This order was ignored. Thanks, Bill.
— Here’s a biggie buried deep in the story. The proposed site of the factory (plus 18 nearby acres) was purchased in 2011 for $3.1 million by a corporation owned by Stenger’s partner Ariel Quiros. Part of the land was sold to the EB-5 consortium, little more than a year later, for $6 million. That’s a tidy profit for Mr. Q. He’d profit even more if the plant is built and his 18 acres are adjacent to a booming factory.
— AnC Bio has yet to seek or receive FDA approval for any of its products, usually a lengthy process. Stenger: “…the FDA approval of products and services will in part be facilitated by the completion of the building.”
Cart before the horse, Bill?
I could go on, but you can read it all at VTDigger. Suffice it to say that this reeks eight ways from Sunday. And beyond the potential implications for the company, its investors, and the city of Newport, this could blow up big-time in Governor Shumlin’s face. He’s been Head Cheerleader for the Stenger projects, frequently traveling overseas to help Stenger and Quiros court investors. His administration set up a conveniently Stenger-friendly regulatory mechanism.
Not to mention that Shumlin’s former right hand, Alex MacLean, was working with the Stenger group through much of this troubled time. If she wasn’t pipelining information back to the administration about all this, she certainly wasn’t doing her political mentor any favors.
If the Newport project implodes or suffers any of several extremely realistic setbacks, it will be another black eye for Peter Shumlin’s tattered reputation for good management. A largely self-inflicted black eye, at that; he didn’t have to identify himself so closely with this project. But he got stars in his eyes, and he may well pay a heavy price.