Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the General Assembly. At left is Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears.

“I support a significant investment in mega-sites. To make sure we don’t lose the next advanced battery manufacturing plant after seeing several go to Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in his inaugural address to the General Assembly.

Gov. Youngkin, have I got a deal for you.

You spent all last fall talking about how Virginia isn’t keeping pace with other states when it comes to creating jobs. Other people heard you talk about critical race theory, but I heard you talk about job creation – because that’s just a little more important out here in Southwest and Southside, and I’d like to think that in your heart you understand that, too.

So, here’s the latest news: The biggest economic development project in Georgia history might be in some jeopardy. You say you want job creation. We know you have a certain showman’s flair, which I’m generally not too keen on but might come in useful here.

Let’s jump straight to what I’m proposing: You should try to steal this project for Virginia. If you succeed, we get 7,500 jobs, which almost certainly would be in rural Virginia – a part of the state that’s desperate for jobs and which supported you most strongly. If you fail, well, we lose nothing, but you make some headlines for yourself and you seem to like that. So it seems a win-win either way.

Here’s what we know: In December, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that Rivian, a California-based electric car manufacturer, would invest $5 billion to build a plant for its electric “adventure vehicles” on a 2,000-acre site 40 miles east of Atlanta. This came just a few months after Ford announced it was building not one, not two, but three new plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, all related to electric vehicles. Those three plants are expected to create 10,800 jobs. And it came about a week after Toyota announced it will build an electric vehicle battery plant in North Carolina, creating 1,750 jobs. Those were all big announcements but all part of an even bigger trend. Last month Toyota announced it will expand production at the electric vehicle parts plants it already has in West Virginia and Tennessee.

So there’s a lot of truth to the contention that Virginia is getting bypassed, although it’s probably not as simple as you made it sound during the campaign. You said then that Virginia was losing out because our taxes are too high and that the Clean Economy Act made our energy grid unreliable. That’s not what these companies said, though. Ford said it picked Tennessee and Kentucky because those states are more inland and less prone to floods and hurricanes that can disrupt work schedules and supply chains. When Rivian chose Georgia, it was pointed out that Georgia is developing an automotive cluster that has seen 78 auto-related companies open up in the last five years. Then there’s the problem of Virginia not having enough big ready-go-to sites, something you talked about in your address to the General Assembly – and which the state budget now being written might provide some money to fix (just not necessarily in topographically challenged Southwest Virginia, since the House budget language restricts the money to sites of 200 acres of more, a provision I hope you’ll nix).

Whatever the reason, there’s a lot of irony to these EV operations locating in the states they did. Environmentalists have long said that the conversion to green energy will create a lot of jobs and it turns out they’re right – except here are green jobs going to red states whose politicians have long been skeptical, to say the least, of green energy. Those politicians are quite happy to rail against the Green New Deal (whatever that is, details seem to vary) but are also quite happy to show up for ribbon-cuttings at electric vehicle plants, as if they were somehow not related.

In any case, it should be clear to anyone now that electric vehicles really are a thing: When Ford announced those plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, it said the company expects 40% to 50% of its vehicle sales to be electric by the end of the decade. Perhaps that’s why we now see even Republicans in the House of Delegates – Republicans from coal country, no less – proposing that the state help pay for electric car charging stations in rural Virginia.

Anyway, all that’s context: The future is being shaped now and one way or another, the energy future is going to be green. Whether it gets as green as some want, or as fast, who’s to say? But it will be some shade of green and we’d best figure out some way to make that work in our favor. Here’s where I make the obligatory shout-out to the InvestSWVA group for commissioning a study on how Southwest Virginia can get a piece of the wind energy supply chain. Somebody will; why not us?

As to the particulars of the Georgia situation, they go like this: Kemp announced the Rivian deal in December, amid as much fanfare as the biggest jobs announcement in state history deserved. Now it’s turned out to be somewhat, umm, controversial. Neighbors don’t much like it. “The project is drawing stiff opposition,” reports Atlanta television station WXIA “11 Alive.” The state was apparently so concerned that the local governing board would vote against rezoning the land that it took over the land. “The state can more easily bypass local zoning laws,” reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now we see an even more amazing sight: Kemp is facing a primary fight for renomination and his opponent is criticizing the Rivan project. You don’t see many Republicans criticizing economic development, but here’s one. And it’s not just anyone. It’s former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump because Kemp was deemed insufficiently helpful in overturning the will of Georgia voters in the 2021 presidential election. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Perdue has seized hold of the local opposition to Rivian.

Perdue’s campaign is now vowing that he will “stop Soros-funded Rivian and protect rural Georgia.” (The billionaire George Soros owns a 2% stake in Rivian.) If you’re looking for yet another example of how unserious some politicians have become, look no further. So Perdue is against 7,500 manufacturing jobs in rural Georgia because he doesn’t like a 2% investor? This strikes me as the conservative equivalent of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who helped run half of Amazon’s HQ2 out of New York. The Morgan County Citizen quotes Perdue: “I’m for economic development but the right kind of economic development.” Apparently 7,500 manufacturing jobs isn’t it. (Yes, yes, there are complaints that the deal was cooked up in secret and the state’s incentive package hasn’t been disclosed, but I don’t see Perdue railing against the loopholes in Georgia’s Freedom of Information Act.) This is probably all just cheap hucksterism — he sees a crowd of people riled up against something and would like to channel them into his campaign — but let’s take Perdue at his word. Here’s someone who might be the next governor of Georgia who says he wants to stop a major economic development project.

Gov. Youngkin, you should tell Rivian that if the plant’s unwelcome in Georgia, it would be quite welcome in Virginia.

True, Virginia wasn’t a finalist for the plant; Texas was, so if Rivian bails on Georgia, we might not be in the running. There’s also no indication that Rivian does plan to bail – but apparently the deal isn’t done yet. The Morgan Citizen quotes company officials saying that negotiations with the state “are still going on.”

That’s your opening, Governor. Invite them to come here. I’ll even suggest the place – the 3,528-acre “Southern Virginia Megasite” in Pittsylvania County. Danville’s working on recreating itself as an advanced manufacturing center; think of what this would do for that. Would there be community opposition there, too? Don’t know – but presumably that megasite isn’t there just to be a wildlife preserve. If Rivian doesn’t really need 2,000 acres, then there’s the 1,000-acre Commerce Park in Pulaski County, which conveniently is near an emerging automative cluster already. Yes, yes I know there are probably good reasons why Virginia didn’t make the cut the first time around — these kind of deals have hundreds of moving parts — this isn’t just business, it’s also some show business, specifically a way to show that Virginia really is “open for business,” as you like to say.

So, what do you say? You make headlines. Virginia gets some free advertising. And on the off chance that we get some jobs out of it, so much the better. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.