September 22, 2023

No factory in my backyard

By Timothy Aeppel and Ben Klayman

MARSHALL, Michigan (Reuters) – Fred Chapman has a message for Ford Motor Co, which plans to build a sprawling factory on the outskirts of this city to make batteries for electric cars and promises to employ 2,500 people.

“We don’t need jobs,” he says.

That’s a surprising view from Chapman, a 62-year-old toolmaker who has spent his entire career in manufacturing and has seen factory after factory shut down in the region over the decades, including one in Marshall that made auto parts where Chapman worked for nearly a decade. years worked. He now commutes to a factory job in a nearby town.

One of the most persistent ideas in the industrial heartland of the US is that a manufacturing renaissance is needed to finally shake the region’s ‘Rust Belt’ image. And there are some signs that may be starting to happen.

Construction spending for U.S. factories more than doubled in the past year, reaching annual revenues of nearly $200 billion in May, according to the Census Bureau.

President Joe Biden has made a factory revival a centerpiece of “Bidenomics,” and his administration pushed through legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act that injected both direct funding and tax incentives for manufacturing construction.

Manufacturing now accounts for nearly 13 million jobs in the US, the highest number since 2008. But that belies the fact that factory work is increasingly a niche segment of the US job market, accounting for just over 8.3% of jobs in June , the lowest share ever .

Many of the new factories now being built are huge, involving billions of dollars in investment and creating thousands of jobs. Developers call these “mega sites” and there is a surge of construction in the US


However, Ford officials met with resistance to his plans in the latest iteration of a phenomenon known as NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Back Yard.”

“It’s a trend we’re seeing across the country,” said Gabby Bruno, Ford’s director of economic development, “and one that’s really picked up recently as some of these megasites are finally being developed, especially in the space for clean energy .”

Not everyone wants giant projects, even in places that seem ripe for a factory renaissance. Shortly after the Ford project was announced in February, concerned residents blocked city meetings and demanded more details about what was to come. Signs appeared along the road pleading, “Stop the Megasite.”

“All of this would be different if they involved the community in the discussion,” said Glenn Kowalske, a retired engineer and one of the local leaders of the group fighting the project.

Opponents claim the project rushed through final approvals and could cause environmental damage. It will be built on former fields and forests next to a winding river just outside the city. Some worry that the new battery-building technology could lead to accidents, allowing lithium to leak into groundwater.

“I’m an engineer,” Kowalske said, “I know what lithium is — it’s a very volatile element.”

Ford’s Bruno said the design of the automaker’s plant includes plans for safety features such as double-walled tanks, special pipes to collect industrial wastewater and special fencing to prevent soil from flowing into the nearby Kalamazoo River.

Critics also oppose the involvement of a Chinese company in the project: Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd. Ford is licensed to use CATL’s technology at the plant, along with the services provided by the Chinese battery giant.

Bruno countered that CATL’s involvement is “limited” and that the plant is 100% Ford owned.

The sheer size of the project is also a sore point. A plot of approximately 750 hectares has been earmarked for industrial development since the 1960s, and over the years other manufacturers have considered building a factory here. But as local economic development officials worked with Ford and other potential investors, it became clear they needed a much larger footprint. They added two adjoining lots that added about 1,100 acres.

Only about 950 acres will be used by Ford, Bruno said, and part of that will be set aside as an easement along the river. The remainder has been earmarked by economic development officials for suppliers and other developments.

Certainly, residents often struggle against major developments that threaten to change the character of their community. In some cases, they win, as happened when New York City residents rejected Amazon Inc’s attempts to build a second headquarters in the city.


The most common outcome is delay, as local opponents launch legal challenges and other roadblocks. In Marshall, residents petitioned to hold a referendum on the project, collecting more than 800 signatures in a city of 6,800. However, that effort has stalled after the city rejected the petition. Activists are now suing.

James Durian, CEO of the Marshall Area Economic Development Alliance, which led the development, said he understands some residents were shocked by the size of the project and the speed at which it came about. But he claims that was necessary to land Ford.

Durian said he understands concerns about Chinese involvement in the project. The US has an adversarial relationship with China, but he said it has become “a bit weird and paranoid”.

Sue Damron, owner of Schuler’s Restaurant and Pub in downtown Marshall, supports the project. She believes factory workers will move to Marshall to work for Ford. “The people who come to work for Ford have spouses and children,” she said. “They’ll give me a headcount to add to my small business.”

But Chapman, the toolmaker, remains sceptical. His home is across the street from Ford’s site, known as BlueOval Battery Park, and he’s been approached to sell his home to the developers. But he doesn’t want to move.

Meanwhile, he sees a looming labor problem. The unemployment rate in surrounding Calhoun County is 4.6% – higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.6% – but still low by historical standards. He notes that the factory where he works, in nearby Battle Creek, is struggling to find skilled workers.

“I’m in the industry. I see it,” he said, adding that his company has even recruited workers from Mexico to fill vacancies. “It’s just weird, there’s no supply of workers.”

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York and Ben Klayman in Marshall, Michigan; editing by Dan Burns and Nick Zieminski)

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