Editorial: Have renewed faith in future of ‘Voltage Valley’

A recent editorial by the Youngstown Vindicator:

It was two years ago this month when our Mahoning Valley and thousands of dedicated auto workers here received numbing confirmation that General Motors would not return the manufacture of vehicles to its Lordstown complex.

The finality of the plant’s closure, at that time, was described appropriately by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman as a “punch in the gut.” During those dark days, few could have argued against those words.

We used this space, however, to light a small candle for a flicker of hope.

Since then, we have seen quite a few ups and downs with news of plans to convert the sprawling former GM plant into the corporate headquarters and manufacturing hub for a new all-electric pickup truck, the Endurance, by fledgling automaker Lordstown Motors Corp.

That company, of course, experienced early highs in which the truck prototype was unveiled with the help of then-Vice President Mike Pence. Based on reports of growing pre-orders, it appeared the truck was in high demand, setting off a successful initial public offering of company stock bearing the appropriate ticker symbol, RIDE.

Then the bottom fell out.

Earlier this year, a published investment research report provided evidence of a history of fraud in the company, and stated that investors had been misled by exaggerated demand and truck orders. Shareholders began questioning the company’s ability to build the trucks, stock prices tumbled, and the face of the company, CEO and founder Steve Burns, soon stepped away.

But just as our area was about to write off LMC as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream for a blimp factory or indoor racetrack, a new glimmer of hope was renewed in recent days.

Now, Taiwanese tech firm, Foxconn, and Lordstown Motors are negotiating a definitive agreement that would have Lordstown Motors sell the plant for $230 million and have Foxconn become the contract manufacturer of LMC’s Endurance.

If the Foxconn deal is finalized, it also likely will bring with it the manufacture of another, smaller electric vehicle, the PEAR, for Personal Electric Automotive Revolution, being designed by a California-based manufacturer, Fisker.

That’s because Foxconn had finalized an agreement in May with Fisker to assemble that vehicle.

Last week, Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker told our Business Editor Ron Selak Jr., “If Foxconn ends up acquiring Lordstown and if the deal closes, it’s our intent to make the PEAR with Foxconn in Lordstown.”

The Foxconn/Lordstown Motors deal could close within the next six months. Assuming it does, production of the PEAR could begin as soon as early 2024.

In the meantime, Lordstown Motors will continue limited production of the Endurance for testing, validation and regulatory approvals for the rest of 2021 and the first part of 2022.

Working together, LMC and Fisker could share certain areas of the plant, such as inbound logistics and the paint booth, for example, for increased efficiency.

As we see it, that partnership would only further cement our role as “Voltage Valley.”

It also would bring significant further local investment, possibly in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to retool the plant to add a distinct, second assembly line that would accommodate the smaller passenger vehicle.

While no one could have predicted this turn of events, one thing is becoming increasingly more clear: The former GM plant, coveted by startup automakers, remains a huge asset to our Valley.

Of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention that during the past two years, new construction of a $2.3 billion, nearly 3 million-square-foot battery cell plant also has been taking place not far from the former GM assembly complex. The new construction, a joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution, is on target for completion by the end of this year. Eventually, it will employ upwards of 1,100 people at full capacity.

The new operation, known as Ultium Cells, LLC, will bring new growth to our Valley in the auto industry that GM CEO Mary Barra said she envisions as an “all-electric, zero-emissions future.”

Indeed, it’s easy to dwell on what has been lost. But we must work to move past that, turning our focus instead to opportunities in our future.

Ultium Cells, combined with renewed hope for the LMC plant, means lots of hope for our Voltage Valley future.

— Youngstown Vindicator, Oct. 10