A Green Tech Battery Plant is Transforming Deep-Red Georgia

By GREG BLUESTEIN, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
COMMERCE, Ga. (AP) — The size of the SK Innovation electric battery plant is staggering, a construction project so vast it splays out along an industrial highway as far as the eye can see.

But what really impressed Gov. Brian Kemp after a tour of one of the largest economic development projects in Georgia history was his chat with two workers on the construction site: one a graduate of the same Athens high school he attended, another a native of the nearby mountain town of Toccoa.

“It’s what we knew what was coming when we broke ground here,” Kemp said of the surge of jobs and growth coming to the region. “We’re excited about the ability of this great company to continue to grow, with great jobs not only now but into the future.”

The $2.6 billion development was saved earlier this month when SK Innovation and a bitter South Korean rival, LG Energy Solution, struck a last-minute deal that allowed the construction to move forward on factories that will supply batteries for Ford and Volkswagen electric vehicles.

And the decision to plant a green technology facility in the middle of a deep-red part of Georgia is already electrifying the local economy and leaving a broad regional footprint that could bring jobs, new investment — and new challenges — to the rural, conservative community.

The project promises to create at least 2,600 jobs in an area once reliant on the fading textile industry. It is moving the region toward a high-tech, high-skilled future as part of President Joe Biden’s plan to build a U.S.-based infrastructure for electric vehicles to combat climate change.

SK Innovation Chief Executive Jun Kim told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the plant could eventually employ more than 6,000 workers and is expected to also bring thousands of other jobs ranging from parts suppliers to restaurateurs catering to the growing industry.

That growth is coming to an area whose biggest draw once was the cluster of outlets along I-85. A boom of apartment construction surrounds the Atlanta Dragway on the outskirts of Commerce, and the historic racetrack was put on the market for future development.

Rental properties for construction workers are snapped up in days. New homes can’t be built fast enough, local officials say, and suppliers are busy scouting sites. Southeast Toyota Distributors added to the boom earlier this year when it finished a $100 million-plus parts facility in the area.

“We listed a parcel of property for 90 acres for almost $4 million, and we got two offers within three weeks,” said Robert White, a local real estate agent and community leader. “Five years ago, that would have sat there for five years. There’s an explosion of industry around here.”

‘THE FUTURE IS HERE’

The project is part of a long-term strategy that could reshape this slice of northeast Georgia, which officials hope to turn into a hub of a resilient new U.S.-based electric vehicle battery supply chain.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff helped broker the $1.8 billion settlement to end a long-running trade dispute that jeopardized the project, and he told the AJC that he’s reaching out to clean-energy firms to attract new businesses and investment in the state.

The Democrat envisions a clean energy arc across North Georgia that also encompasses a massive solar plant in Dalton.

“The desire for prosperity, jobs and opportunity is bipartisan. The future is here,” Ossoff said. “The question is how fast and how effectively will we make this transition. What I’m going to do is champion Georgia as the heart of this vital transition to clean energy.”

Kemp, facing reelection in 2022, compared the Commerce project to the sprawling Kia auto plant in West Point, which he said has spawned roughly 14,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

“We’ll see the same thing here. I’m convinced of that,” he said. “The demand is coming.”

‘MIXED EMOTIONS’

But the growth brings new tensions to a city of about 7,000 people dotted with poultry plants and smaller-scale industrial facilities.

Some in the surrounding Jackson County, which Donald Trump carried with nearly 80% of the vote in November, have grumbled about being positioned as a key cog in the fight against climate change, which the former president falsely derided as a “hoax.”

But residents are more apt to worry about changes in their day-to-day lives. Local schools enjoy enviable student-teacher ratios, community leaders all seem to know one another and, apart from congestion around the outlet malls, traffic is typically sparse.

Joey Olson moved to Commerce five years ago from the Los Angeles area, drawn by its education system and small-town feel. The owner of Ironclad Roofing, Olson stands to benefit financially from the new housing crush. But he also worries the town will be unrecognizable in a few years.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s great for business, but I don’t want to live house atop of house atop of house. I’m worried about more traffic, more overcrowding and a strain on our schools.”

The increased demand for high-skilled — and high-paid — workers is also already affecting the local labor market. White, the Realtor, also runs a handyman company, and he’s having a hard time attracting staffers even after offering $15 an hour.

“I drove by a McDonald’s offering people a $1,000 bonus for people who work there 100 days,” he said. “The competition is off the charts.”

Commerce Mayor Clark Hill has said SK Innovation has helped finance the local library system in addition to a $400,000 contribution to bolster the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The firm’s officials indicated that’s just the start.

“We do not regard ourselves as a foreign investor to the city of Commerce,” Kim, the company’s chief executive, said through a translator. “We consider ourselves as a Georgia insider, so we will continue to work with the local community and continue to grow.”

Bob Sosebee, a former longtime Commerce city councilman, said most residents hold to the adage that the rising tide of investment will lift all boats.

“The community has embraced its role in fighting global warming,” Sosebee said. “You know, there’s always going to be some skepticism. But that’s the vast minority.”

Kemp pointed to that prospect during his visit to the plant, which he said puts Georgia at the intersection of long-term U.S. clean energy strategy and his own desire to beef up the state’s industrial framework.

“This is American manufacturing. It’s green energy. It’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing in this country and in the state of Georgia. So we’re fighting hard for that,” the governor said. “This is not the end. It’s really just the beginning.”

Pictured at top: An aerial shot from earlier this year of the SK Battery America site in Commerce, Ga., shows construction progress at the facilities. SK Innovation is building two plants at the Georgia site to make batteries for electric vehicles. Image: SK Innovation.

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