In America’s ‘Voltage Valley’, hopes of car-making revival turn sour | Ohio

When Lordstown Motors, an electric vehicles (EV) manufacturer in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, declared bankruptcy last month, it was the latest blow to a region that has seen decades of extravagant promises fail to deliver.

The 5,000 new jobs executives vowed to create in 2020 generated fresh hope for the shuttered General Motors Lordstown plant, which once functioned as an economic engine for the area and a critical piece of the nation’s industrial heartland.

Local leaders rebranded Mahoning Valley “Voltage Valley”, claiming the EV revolution would revive the region’s fortunes. Donald Trump, then the president, trumpeted a major victory. “The area was devastated when General Motors moved out,” he said. “It’s incredible what’s happened in the area. It’s booming now. It’s absolutely booming.”

But Lordstown Motors’ failure and its decision to sue its major investor, the electronics giant Foxconn, over a soured investment partnership, have dented Voltage Valley’s fortunes. Years of similar failures have given some residents here “savior fatigue” and have largely given up hope that the Lordstown plant can ever be fully rebooted.

“I really want the plant to do well and succeed, but we’ve experienced so many ‘Hey we’re gonna come in and save the day’ promises that never happen,” said David Green, the regional director of United Auto Workers (UAW), who started working at Lordstown in 1995.

Green said he was especially skeptical of Foxconn. The company has put up nets to prevent workers fromkilling themselves at one of its Chinese plants, he said, and has failed to live up to other promises of job creation across the US: “This is the savior company? I don’t have warm feelings toward them.”

Still, some local leaders are optimistic. They insist Foxconn, which is attempting to scale up autonomous tractor production at Lordstown and lure a different EV startup, will save the plant.

“I think Foxconn will be successful,” said Lordstown’s mayor, Arno Hill. “They are fairly confident they are going to be here for a while.”

Hill and other leaders said Lordstown Motors was not the only new employer in town. GM partnered with LG Corporation to build an EV battery plant that employs about 1,300 people next door to Lordstown, and a new TJX warehouse has hired about 1,000 workers. A new industrial park is planned in the region, as are two gas plants.

The feelings of those not in the business of promoting the region are more nuanced. In nearby Warren, where many Lordstown employees have lived since GM originally opened the plant in 1966 opening, mentions of Foxconn saving Lordstown or the Mahoning Valley drew a mix of eye-rolls, scoffs and blank looks from residents in the city’s downtown.

“There are words, but I have seen no action,” said Leslie Dunlap, owner of the FattyCakes Soap Company, and several other Warren businesses, as she worked at a farmers’ market. “People here have lost faith in big companies.”

Warren’s fortune is tied to that of the plant – when the latter’s employment numbers dipped, “people stopped spending money here, started selling houses, walking away from properties,” Dunlap said.

Residents on a recent Tuesday afternoon said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the region’s economic future. Warren’s downtown shopfronts are full. But the city also bears the scars of rust belt decline with vacant industrial buildings and blighted neighborhoods.

A few miles down the road at Lordstown, the lots around the well-kept offices where a few hundred Foxconn employees work are repaved. But the rest of the 6.2m sq ft factory looks like a depressing relic. Weeds sprout from the cracked pavement of the vast, unused blacktop lots surrounding it.

Lordstown employed 11,000 people at its peak, but between the mid-1990s and 2016, the workforce in Trumbull county, where Lordstown sits, dropped by 63%. Just a few thousand remained when Lordstown closed in 2018.

Some still hold a shred of hope that GM will repurchase the plant – it is nextdoor to an EV battery factory, and batteries are expensive to ship. It makes sense, said Josh Ayers, the bargaining chairman for UAW 1112.

“I have a pit in my stomach every time I drive past Lordstown,” he said. “Foxconn is in there but I don’t see a future for them.”

Regardless of the plant’s potential, local labor leaders say they have largely moved on and trained their attention on GM’s nearby Ultium electric-vehicle plant. A small explosion, fires and chemical leaks at the plant recently injured employees who work there, for as little as $16 per hour – less than the amount the local Waffle House offers, and low enough that some employees need government assistance, Ayers noted.

Some local leaders tout the region’s job openings. Ayers said they exist because turnover is high. “People used to run through walls to work at Lordstown,” he said. “Nobody is running through walls to work at Ultium.”

It is not the first time that a politician’s promises have left locals disappointed.

‘This plant is about to shift into high gear’

As the Great Recession battered the nation in late 2009, Barack Obama traveled to General Motors’ mammoth Lordstown plant to promise laid-off autoworkers a brighter future.

Obama’s 2009 GM bailout became a lifeline: ramping up production of the Chevrolet Cobalt would bring back over 1,000 workers, the president told the anxious crowd.

“Because of the steps we have taken, this plant is about to shift into high gear,” Obama bellowed over loud cheers. The plan soon fizzled, however, and by 2019 GM had shed the plant’s workforce and sold it to Lordstown Motors.

In 2014 Obama declared Youngstown the center for 3D-printing technology, though the industry has brought few jobs. The failure to revive the area, in part, helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

A ‘Vote Trump’ sign hangs on a house in Lordstown in, 2020. Photograph: Megan Jelinger/AFP/Getty Images

Mahoning Valley was once steel country, and residents here trace their economic troubles back to 1977’s Black Monday, when two steel plants abruptly closed and 5,000 workers lost their jobs. Since then, the promises to pull the region out of its slow tailspin have been plentiful.

An eccentric businessman from nearby Youngstown briefly revived the Avanti car company until slow sales and poor management killed it by 1990, leaving its workforce jobless.

A glass company that recently received tax incentives to build a large plant “never made one fuckin’ bottle”, UAW’s Green said.

Perhaps most infamously, Trump, in a July 2017 Youngstown speech, promised residents auto jobs “are all coming back. Don’t move, don’t sell your house.” A year later, GM idled the plant and, as residents here are keen to highlight, it did so after receiving billions in taxpayer assistance, including $60m in state subsidies in exchange for a promise to keep the plant open through 2027.

In 2019, Trump tweeted that he had been “working nicely with GM to get” the Lordstown deal done. But Lordstown Motors floundered almost from the start, suffering from scandals over inflated sales figures and battery range. By 2022, a new savior arrived: Foxconn. It agreed to buy the plant and a 55% stake in Lordstown Motors for $230m. That relationship soured, and Foxconn quit making the payments this year. The deal collapsed.

In a sign of how little impact this “booming” transformation has had, the name “Foxconn” hardly registered with some Warren residents. They squinted as they tried to recall where they had heard it. Others pointed to other ventures they felt could have more impact – a proposed science-fiction museum and businesses at the farmers’ market.

Outside the county courthouse, an employee who did not want their name printed said they knew of the Lordstown Motors collapse, but it was not top of mind for anyone they knew: “Lordstown is not where the money is. I don’t know where it’s at.”

‘Foxconn didn’t come through’

About 450 miles from Lordstown, in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, Foxconn in 2017 promised to build a hi-tech factory campus that would employ 13,000 people in exchange for $4.5bn in tax incentives. Residents were forced from their homes to make way for the factory, but very little was built.

Kelly Gallaher is among those who fought the project, and she sees a replay in Lordstown as Foxconn promises big things while its deal falls apart. Mount Pleasant residents tried to warn Lordstown on social media when Foxconn showed interest in the plant, she said.

“Lordstown needed a savior angel, and they weren’t in a position with any other backup choices. But it isn’t a surprise that Foxconn didn’t come through,” Gallaher said.

Guy Coviello, the chief executive of the Youngstown/Warren Chamber of Commerce, dismissed such concerns. Foxconn is not asking for incentives or making big promises, he said, claiming that the problems in Wisconsin were largely “political ballyhooing”.

The idea that autonomous tractors will save Lordstown is not landing with many residents. But one thing everyone around Lordstown seems to agree on is the notion that the region’s manufacturing heyday is never returning – for no other reason than automation has made it impossible. Manufacturers simply don’t need the labor force they once did.

Mahoning still has much to offer. Its population loss is stabilizing, the cost of living is low, it is near other major population centers and it offers a huge workforce, Ayers said.

Those selling points may bring more investment. But after so many broken promises, any floated idea is met with skepticism. Reflecting on Obama’s speech, Green said the president’s reassurance was a “great feeling that day”.

“What a stark contrast to 10 years later.”

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