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New Ford EV battery factory brings jobs and debate to small Michigan town

MARSHALL, MICH. – On a gusty morning in a quaint central Michigan town, the glow of the sun hits the brightly colored mural on the side of a brick building. It reads, in bold typeface, “GREETINGS FROM MARSHALL”.

The sidewalk is lined with attractive shops like Living MI, where owner Caryn Drenth arranges a stack of graphic tees amid rows of gift-worthy trinkets. Across the street at Marshall Hardware, store manager David Miltenberger places two flags — the American flag and one for the Marshall High School Red Hawks — in flag holders adjacent to an exterior wall.

About a five-minute drive from an antique store, bookstore, and retro drugstore is a sprawling piece of land where construction has begun. Piles of dirt and a fleet of cement trucks are the first signs of what’s to come: another $3.5 billion Ford plant that will employ 2,500 workers making batteries for electric vehicles.

Ford originally considered locating outside the United States, but was drawn to Michigan in part because of new federal tax credits for electric vehicles and batteries that were part of the Energy Reduction Act. ‘inflation. Ford eventually landed in Marshall, a town of just under 7,000.

A year ago, President Joe Biden signed the IRA, a sweeping package of environmental, tax and health care measures that he promised would bring jobs back to the United States. Since then, he and other Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have touted the law’s impacts as a key to winning the presidency and Congress in 2024.

Advantages and disadvantages

Yet on the ground in Marshall, where the site is being prepared for construction to begin, the reality is far more complicated. Along with the excitement about the site comes concern about how life in a charming little town might change with the introduction of major industry.

Many business owners, including Derek Allen, who runs a nonprofit in Marshall, hail the new plant as a way to provide economic stability. Allen said the city has lost 2,000 jobs in recent years as businesses downsize or move elsewhere. Covid has also taken its toll on many small businesses. The announcement of the new factory in February was “a huge boost to morale here”, Allen said while at Serendipity and The Brew, a local coffee and homewares store .

“I feel so excited and blessed that this is happening in our community, and businesses like this will thrive for who knows how long because of it,” Allen said.

Not everyone is so convinced that the change will be good for Marshall.

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At a meeting in May, where city council members voted to redefine the zoning of the 741 acres on which the facility will be built, hundreds of residents were in attendance to speak out both for and against. the project in a meeting that lasted until 2 a.m. the next day. Concerns ranged from environmental protection to Ford’s partnership with a Chinese battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co.to produce the batteries.

Dissent is visible in the neighborhood closest to the site of the future factory.

Signs dot the neighborhood reading, “Stop the Megasite, Save the Historic Marshal. At a nearby intersection, a homemade wooden sign stenciled the words “CHINA FORD” with an arrow pointing to the site.

General view of a mural in downtown Marshall, Michigan on August 31, 2023.

Karen James Sloan | CNBC

Although Ford has tried to reassure residents that they will own the facility and the land and will take steps to protect the environment, not everyone is convinced.

Emma Ruedisueli, who lives and grew up in Marshall, said the construction had been heartbreaking, especially for those who like rural fields on the outskirts of town and don’t want industry moving there.

“For our little town, it’s been a bit disruptive,” she said. “More and more voices are being heard regarding the loss of land.”

Political implications

Marshall is the seat of Calhoun County, which voted for Donald Trump with 55% of the vote in 2020. The county also supported Trump in 2016, but voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.

Biden and Democrats hope to win support from voters in swing districts like Marshall, in part by touting the economic impacts of major legislation like the Cut Inflation Act. Biden and his cabinet have traveled the country highlighting the benefits of the legislation, but it’s hard to convince voters to equate a dirt-filled pitch with a law signed in Washington. A July poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland found that seven in ten Americans had heard little or nothing about the new law.

Drenth, which owns several small businesses in downtown Marshall, said most residents don’t equate the new plant with federal funding, but rather the $1.7 billion in incentives and tax breaks. provided by the Michigan State Government.

“Much of the local community is focused on Michigan incentives,” she said. “I don’t think the federal [incentives] I really hit the airwaves around here.”

Democratic U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a candidate for an open seat in the Michigan Senate, said she often corrects people who think President Donald Trump is responsible for job creation.

“I’ve met people in my own city who said, ‘We’re so excited to see all these new developments, thank God President Trump brought this to us.’ And I said, “That wasn’t Trump. Trump talked about it. But he did not do it. Biden did it,” Slotkin said.

Republican challengers running for office aren’t shy about criticizing the law, even if it creates new jobs. Michael Hoover, one of two Republican candidates announced for the Michigan Senate race, compared the new Ford plant to Solyndra, a solar panel startup that received more than $500 million in government funding before making bankruptcy.

“It’s like taking taxes away from the working class and telling them you’re going to turn that money over to the Ford Motor Company so they can build a factory and make billions of dollars. That’s not how the country is. supposed to be created to work,” Hoover said.

It remains to be seen what impact the factory will ultimately have on Marshall and his politics. The plant won’t be completed until 2026, further complicating the ability of Democratic candidates to communicate about new jobs that don’t yet exist. But Allen said the mere fact that the development is happening could have a role in how people vote – although the impact could go one way or the other.

“There are people who will credit Democrats for the economic development that’s happening in the region, and we’ll vote that way,” Allen said, before adding, “I think there are people who are maybe also be upset by this, who may vote the other way.”


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