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Perseverance for $2.3B battery plant paid off, state official says

WARREN — In the course of the past several months as Ohio’s top economic and elected officials tried to persuade General Motors and LG Chem to locate an electric vehicle battery-cell production facility in the Mahoning Valley, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted thought the cause was lost.

For reasons the Republican didn’t want to discuss publicly, he was “starting to get the impression there was a desire to be in another part of the country — and no matter what incentive package we put on the table, we were not going to be successful,” Husted said in an interview Friday.

“But we stayed engaged, we let them know we would be competitive with the other packages these states were offering, that this could be a good news story for everybody involved … that they could come here and create some good news and allow Ohio to be part of their future as we have been an important part of their past,” Husted said.

Then Thursday it was announced GM and South Korea’s LG Chem are partnering on a joint venture to invest $2.3 billion to mass produce electric battery cells — what Husted calls the “the brain and the heart” of battery packs — near Lordstown.

Husted and members of JobsOhio, the state’s private nonprofit economic development organization, were in Detroit for signing of the agreement.

“I can’t tell you how much this is going to mean for the future of Ohio. At least it gives us the potential to be in the game of electrically-powered vehicles and gives the Mahoning Valley a shot at developing a real competency cluster in this space, with what is going on there and the potential of Lordstown Motors,” Husted said.

Lordstown Motors Corp. recently purchased GM’s former assembly plant in Lordstown with plans to repurpose the 6.2 million-square-foot building into a facility that produces electric-powered pickup trucks.

The company is aiming for a production start of late 2020.

The sale was for $20 million, the number this newspaper first reported in early November. The asset transfer finalized Nov. 7, but the sale amount didn’t post to the Trumbull County Auditor’s Office website until Friday.

The website shows Lordstown Motors owns about 916 acres. When operations begin, it’s expected the new automaker will employ about 400, but there are plans for as many as 5,000 on three shifts.

With GM’s plans to have 20 battery-powered vehicles in production by 2023, and the plant near Lordstown basically the sole source of battery cells to power them plus the international partnership with LG Chem, “Ohio is in the mix of being part of the future of the automotive industry,” Husted said.

“This is an element of being part of the future of the automotive industry and it’s not just wishful thinking or rhetoric. These cells are the top technology being produced in the world today and they are going to be produced there, and so that gives us the opportunity for something bigger than just 1,100 jobs,” he said.

The investment means at least 1,100 jobs — near the 1,500 GM employed at Lordstown when it closed the plant and stopped making the Chevrolet Cruze.

GM said the new facility, billed by the automaker to be among the largest battery factories in the world, would be on a greenfield manufacturing site in the Lordstown area. The automaker is said to be considering at least three locations in the Mahoning Valley.

Ground on the plant is expected to be broken in mid-2020.

The development and continued advancements in battery and energy storage technology as it expands to other implements and becomes more and more part of the landscape of the U.S. presents Ohio a unique opportunity.

“How do we leverage this opportunity? How do we think educationally from a research and development point of view, from a community point of view, how to build that ecosystem that can turn this into something more than just one facility?” Husted said. “That is how we have to think about this opportunity.”

It’s going to take the community, state, education and private sector partners to take advantage of the opportunity. Part of it is turning this part of Ohio into a center for research and development and job training in the industry. Another part is making LG Chem feel welcome.

“They have the technology, they have the expertise in this space more so than GM does. So we want LG Chem, we want to talk about them, too. We want to be great partners with them, too. We want them to make the Mahoning Valley feel like their home away from home and make them feel welcomed and appreciated so they will want to tell people they do business with in Korea about what a great place Ohio is and the Mahoning Valley is to them,” Husted said.

It was a year ago Nov. 26 that GM announced its plans to idle Lordstown and some other U.S. plants in a shift toward truck, SUV and electric vehicle production. The last Cruze was produced March 6.

The United Auto Workers union wanted a new car line.

Gov. Mike DeWine and Husted, shortly after the inauguration in January, met with Barra in Detroit. But it was evident then GM was not going to assign a new vehicle to the Lordstown plant.

“They made it very clear at that point that they were not assigning another product. People were saying because that’s what the UAW wanted, nobody was going to work against their wishes, but internally, it was pretty clear to us, it was made pretty clear to us … that that was not going to happen based on the information we had,” Husted said.

Most of the 1,500 or so UAW Local 1112 members transferred to other GM plants.

rselak@tribtoday.com