Marshall weighs $3.5B Ford battery factory amid community backlash
- Ford announced a new $3.5 billion EV battery factory in Marshall in February, on a portion of a 1,900-acre megasite
- Since then, many community residents have opposed the move, saying the factory plan was done secretively
- On Monday, Marshall City Council is expected to determine the land’s zoning, which in turn will direct whether the factory can proceed
A $3.5 billion EV battery factory planned by Ford Motor Co. faces a crucial vote on Monday to determine whether the development can proceed on 741 semi-rural acres of a 1,900-acre megasite west of downtown.
Battle lines in Marshall separate people both for and against the project, with each side encouraging a large turnout at the Marshall City Council meeting, moves that once seemed rare among new factory projects in Michigan when they promised waves of jobs and investment .
Yet more recently — as the state seeks more large-scale projects on so-called megasites — community opposition in places like Eagle Township, west of Lansing, and greater Big Rapids calls for more local input when the statewide business attraction strategy ends up in their backyards.
- Michigan eyes new megasite near Flint Bishop airport with $1.5M funding
- Michigan adds $120 million in incentives for Ford EV megasite near Marshall
As one sign of the growing divide between big projects and people who live near them,the public comment portion of the April 25 meeting of the Michigan Strategic Fund — the public funding arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation — stretched for three hours. People spoke in three-minute intervals, most of them opposed to a handful of plans that combined would be investments worth billions of dollars spread across thousands of acres.
In Marshall, advocates of the EV battery factory project — including economic developers Marshall Area Economic Development Alliance (MAEDA) — tout the 2,500 jobs Ford said it expects to create in Calhoun County, where the city is about a 20-minute drive west to Battle Creek.
Other supporters include local business owners, statewide economic development officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who celebrated the factory when it was announced in February.
The “generational investment by an American icon will uplift local families, small businesses, and the entire community and help our state continue leading the future of mobility and electrification,” Whitmer said February 13 as the project first outlined publicly at an event in Romulus.
On the other side stand community members who look skeptically upon claims that the factory will benefit Marshall. They worry about the environmental impact of converting the agricultural property just north of the Kalamazoo River to one of the state’s largest new EV-related production sites.
And the opponents raise questions about how the deal took shape, saying they feel blindsided by a land acquisition process that involved multiple public officials signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) preventing them from discussing it. Some say they are still learning about the impact of the full 1,900-acre development area.
“Most people were not given any information and this was not in the public eye until January,” Heather Brown-Rocho, a resident of Ceresco on the western border of the megasite, told Bridge Michigan on Friday.
Brown-Rocho, who owns historic properties in the region and lives in a former schoolhouse dating from the Civil War era, described the development proceedings as “a gut-punch.”
“I believe we’ve been hijacked,” she said. Despite all of the changes coming to the community, she said, “I had no say.”
At the center of the dispute is Ford Motor Co., which chose the Marshall area site to build its Blue Oval Battery Park Michigan. The Dearborn-based automaker says the factory will be the first in the U.S. run by an automaker to produce lithium iron phosphate (LPF) batteries, which Ford says will make EVs more affordable. Chinese partner Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) will supply the technology design and early versions of the batteries until the factory opens for operation.
The state will provide Ford just over $1 billion in incentives, including a $210 million grant and a waiver of property taxes. Michigan expects the new Ford factory to generate $29.7 billion in personal income over the next 20 years due to workers being paid from $20 to $50 per hour.
The state also is providing $120 million to MAEDA through the Strategic Site Readiness program, which was established in late 2021 as part of the $1.6 billion Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) fund to actively acquire and develop large tracts of land for the massive factories tied to EV and semiconductor production.
In addition to Ford’s plan to build on 741 acres, the automaker also plans to establish a nature preserve as a community park on 245 acres near the Kalamazoo River. The rest of the property, MAEDA said, will be developed for other companies, possibly some that want to be located near Ford.
Marshall’s city council meeting on Monday continues a series of steps that get the property eligible for development. The land was transferred this year into the city from Marshall Township so that it’s eligible for utility services.
The next step is for the city to create a new zoning district for it that will allow an industrial and manufacturing complex. Much of the property — home to fields, historic farms and homes — has been used for farming, but it has been zoned for industrial development after officials determined years ago that its location near US-69 and I-94 could be attractive to industry.
A joint planning commission meeting on April 26 to advise the city resulted in a 4-2 vote against the rezoning.
Commissioners “went against staff recommendations, which is not the norm,” said Jim Durian, CEO of MAEDA. “They also did not attach any recommendation to their vote for consideration, which is not helpful.”
City council, he said, next needs to choose a zoning classification. That is the likely decision on Monday.
“No matter what they choose, the project will move forward,” Durian said. Ford, meanwhile, did not respond to Bridge’s request for a comment on its commitment to the project.
The MEDC says its statewide business attraction mission means that it has to compete for projects to come to Michigan. Otie McKinley, MEDC spokesperson, said many of them today are large, with billion-dollar price tags as federal programs — like the federal Inflation Reduction Act — incentivizes businesses to move their supply chains to the U.S.
With the Ford deal, the state has secured more than $13 billion in electric vehicle and battery manufacturing projects in 2023.
“Community support is necessary for these projects to happen,” McKinley said on Friday. “We work closely with local partners … and (we’re standing) hand in hand with local leaders to make sure these projects move forward for the economic health of the state.”
But Marshall-area residents say they were eliminated from too much of the planning over the past year. Now, as council votes on zoning, site preparation is underway, including demolition of nine houses and road closures.
Kathy Scarlata, who also lives in the Marshall area, told the MSF on Tuesday that the megasite project seemed to proceed in secrecy.
“Instead of communicating with the community, they went out of their way to keep the development of this project out of the public forum,” she said.
“A project of this magnitude should be openly discussed and all points of view heard and considered,” she continued.
Dale Borders, a 45-year Marshall Township resident, told the MSF on Tuesday that it’s not too late to get more people involved.
“This project should be halted until a referendum or a vote can be held in the community,” he said during the meeting.
Those opposed to the Ford development, and the direction of the megasite, say they don’t know what will happen after Monday night’s meeting.
Most promise to keep their focus on fighting for communities to have a greater say in how they’re developed.
“I think each time there is another meeting and citizens are vocal, pained, angry, yet clear-minded in their knowledge and resolve,” Jan Corey Arnett of Battle Creek told Bridge. Yet, she added, they also “are not listened to by people who signed NDAs essentially to circumvent democracy and (people’s) right to protect the land they love.”
Ford, meanwhile, plans an online community information meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
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