Biden kept a Ford EV battery plant from going overseas. But not everyone is happy about it.

Environmental concerns from locals mire Ford's latest battery plant in Michigan

MARSHALL, MICH. – On a gusty morning in a quaint central Michigan town, the sun’s glow hits the brightly colored mural on the side of a brick building. It reads, in bold letters, “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 Marshall High School’s Red Hawks — in flag pole holders adjoined to an exterior wall.

About a five-minute drive past an antique store, a book shop and a retro pharmacy is a wide field where construction has begun. Piles of dirt and a fleet of cement trucks are the first signs of what’s to come: A new $3.5 billion Ford plant that will employ 2,500 workers making batteries for electric vehicles.

Ford was initially considering sites outside of the U.S. for the facility but was lured to Michigan in part because of new federal tax credits for electric vehicles and batteries that were part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Ford ultimately landed in Marshall, a town with just under 7,000 residents.

A year ago, President Joe Biden signed the IRA, a broad-ranging environmental, tax and health care package he promised would bring back jobs to the U.S. 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.

Pros and cons

Yet on the ground in Marshall, where the site is being prepped for construction to begin, the reality is much more complicated. Excitement for the site is paired with concerns about how life in a charming small town could change with the introduction of a major industry.

Many business owners, including Derek Allen, who runs a non-profit in Marshall, are praising the new factory as a way to ensure economic stability. Allen said the city has lost 2,000 jobs in recent years as companies downsized or moved elsewhere. Covid also took a toll on many of the small businesses. The announcement of the new plant in February was “a huge boost in morale down here,” Allen said while in Serendipity and The Brew, a local coffee and home goods store.

“I just feel so excited and blessed that that’s coming to our community, and the businesses like this one will thrive for who knows how long because of it,” Allen said.

Not everyone is as confident that the change will be good for Marshall.

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At a May meeting where city council members voted to re-zone the 741 acres the facility will be built on, hundreds of residents attended to speak both for and against the project in a meeting that dragged until 2 a.m. the next day. Concerns ranged from environmental protections to Ford’s partnership with a Chinese battery company, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., to produce the batteries.

The dissent can be seen in the neighborhood closest to the site of the future factory.

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

General view of a mural in downtown Marshall, Michigan, June 28, 2023.

Ben Klayman | Reuters

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

Emma Ruedisueli, who lives and grew up in Marshall, said the construction has been jarring, especially for those who enjoy the rural fields on the town’s outskirts and don’t want to see industry move in.

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

Political implications

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

Biden and Democrats are hoping to win the support of voters in swing districts like Marshall in part by touting the economic impacts of major legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden and his cabinet have crossed the country highlighting the benefits of the legislation, but getting voters to equate a dirt-filled lot with a law signed in D.C. is tricky. A July poll from the Washington Post-University of Maryland found seven in ten Americans had heard only a little or nothing at all about the new law.

Drenth, who owns several small businesses in downtown Marshall, said most residents don’t equate the new factory with federal funding but rather the $1.7 billion in incentives and tax breaks offered by Michigan’s state government.

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

Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is running for Michigan’s open Senate seat, said she often corrects people who think President Donald Trump was responsible for new jobs.

“I’ve sat with people in my own town who have said, ‘We’re so thrilled to see all this new development, thank God, President Trump brought us that.’ And I said, ‘That wasn’t Trump. Trump talked about it. But he didn’t do it. Biden did it,’ ” Slotkin said.

Republican challengers running for office aren’t shying away from criticizing the law, even as it brings in new jobs. Michael Hoover, one of two Republican candidates who have announced for the Michigan Senate race, compared the new Ford factory to Solyndra, a solar panel start-up that received more than $500 million in government funding before going bankrupt.

This is taking taxes out of the working class, and telling them that you’re going to hand that money over to Ford Motor Company so they can build a plant and they can make billions of dollars. This is not how the country is meant to work,” Hoover said.

How the plant will ultimately impact Marshall and its politics remains to be seen. The plant won’t be complete until 2026, further complicating the ability for Democratic candidates to message on new jobs that don’t yet exist. But Allen said just the fact the development is coming could have a role in how people vote – although the impact could go either way.

“There are folks who will credit Democrats with the economic development that’s happening in the area, and we’ll vote that way,” Allen said, before adding, “I think there are folks who are maybe upset about it too, who maybe will vote the other way.”

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