Other voices: Finally, a carmaker in NC

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 7, 2022

Ahab had his whale.

For North Carolina, the Big One that Kept Getting Away, decade after decade, was an auto plant.

Try as it might over the years, lobbing buckets full of money and sweet nothings at various objects of its affections, the state could not hook a carmaker. Not Mercedes-Benz. Not Toyota. Not Volkswagen. Not Volvo. Not anyone.

Not anymore.

The Vietnamese company VinFast plans to locate a multibillion-dollar electric car factory in Chatham County that will employ 7,500 workers at a minimum average wage of more than $51,000.

The company intends to produce both a five-passenger SUV and a seven-passenger SUV in the facility.

If you’ve never heard of VinFast, there’s a good reason.

It’s a relatively new company, only 5 years old, that produced its first line of gas-powered cars in 2019. The plant in Moncure, about 30 miles from Raleigh, will represent a $4 billion investment and is expected to produce 200,000 vehicles a year.

In return, the state will provide an incentives package of up to $854 million over 32 years. Chatham County will add $400 million in enticements.

Yes, that’s a lot, but it is based on the company reaching certain employment and investment benchmarks.

This hopeful news follows our own good fortune in the Triad to land a Toyota electric-car battery plant at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite.

As it happens, the VinFast plant will be built at a megasite as well, the state’s largest. Also as in the
Triad, economic recruiters had been trying for years to find a tenant.

After that, a start-up supersonic jet manufacturer, Boom Supersonic, announced that it had chosen a site at Piedmont Triad International Airport for a plant that would produce a new supersonic airliner. The facility will hire up to 1,761 employees at an average annual salary of nearly $69,000.

When state dignitaries come to town for these big announcements, there’s bipartisan joy, as there should be.

And as he did during the Boom and Toyota announcements, Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County, the state’s most powerful Republican, sounded a familiar theme.

“Today’s announcement is just another example of the unprecedented growth in North Carolina’s economy, fueled by low taxes, a strong workforce and reasonable regulations,” Berger said last Tuesday. “Businesses small and large are finding a home right here in North Carolina.”

What Berger did not tout at any of the announcements was the added benefit of greener approaches to transportation.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, did.

“For decades, North Carolina has sought to bring auto manufacturing to our state,” Cooper said. “Well now, it’s coming on the wave of clean energy, and it’s been worth the wait.”

In fact, the greatest promise in all of these developments is that they are forward-thinking, based on where technology is headed, not where it has been.

Electric cars, not gas-powered ones. Jets that can exceed the speed of sound, practically and profitably.

Of course, there’s an inherent risk as well in pushing those envelopes.

Not every grand new idea pans out.

Not every start-up succeeds.

Not every big bet is a winner.

Among these, the safest wager appears to be the Toyota battery plant.

As for VinFast, will it find success in its first attempt to do business outside of Vietnam? (The News & Observer of Raleigh reports that VinFast is shifting to electric cars because it lost more than $1 billion on its gas-powered vehicles in 2021.) Boom’s plans may be even more audacious. It has yet to build a prototype for its sleek, needle-nosed Overture jet, which exists only as a scale model and in artists’ drawings.

But the incentives in each case are conditional.

And the potential upside of being on the ground floor of these companies’ growth and development outweighs the challenges that can derail new ventures.

It’s good to hear that North Carolina will be going along for the ride.

— Winston-Salem Journal