The NIMBYs are coming for Ford's new battery plant

Ford's announcement of a new battery production facility in the rural inland community of Marshall, Michigan, has been seen by many as a surprise gift to the Rust Belt; a castoff from coastal elites who can afford to care about the political implications of foreign investment. To others, however, it's an unwanted intrusion. Not an invasion by a foreign power, but an encroachment on an isolated, peaceful way of life. The $3.5 billion EV battery plant was originally slated for construction in the Virginia, but was ultimately was shut out by the commonwealth's newly elected governor, ostensibly over concerns regarding China.

Ford plans a sprawling 2.5 million-square-foot EV battery manufacturing facility on 1,200 acres of farmland in the community near Battle Creek, an hour and a half west of Detroit. The plant promises to bring 2,500 jobs — "much needed," the mayor says — paying $20-$50 an hour.

But in Michigan's scramble to score on Virginia's turnover, some feel their voices have been drowned out. Does Marshall want a new manufacturing facility? If some are to be believed, the answer is no. There have been meetings in living rooms and even a protest with signs outside Marshall City Hall. Will it matter? Seems unlikely. Ford has already lost one site for its new battery facility and is likely keen to keep a firm grip on this one. Whatever the rationale, everybody's ready to take (or at the very least assign) credit for the new jobs, but nobody wants to watch them being done.

Won't the real Slim Shady please stand up?

NIMBYism in the face of industrial development is nothing new, but the answer to whether the locals are on board may depend heavily on which Marshall you choose to survey. You see, there are two. Ford's proposed megasite is actually in Marshall Township, not the city of Marshall. And the township appears to be the source of much of the noise — unsurprisingly, since it will take the brunt of the impacts of development. Marshall Township is the six-mile by six-mile area outlined here. That Mike Tyson job in the southeastern corner is the incorporated city of Marshall. Ford's facility would occupy a chunk of the township bordered by Ceresco to the west, M-96 to the north, I-69 to the east and the North Branch Kalamazoo River to the south.

A township, for those unfamiliar with the term, is really little more than a way to identify unincorporated space. In states that don't utilize the system, Marshall Township would merely be a nameless chunk of rural Calhoun County. Why does this matter? Simply put, this is an area where a pro-business, anti-regulatory, anti-union message would typically prevail — the permissive policies that entice corporations like Ford to set up shop in the first place. Municipal ordinances? Get out of here.

So there's irony in the resistance. As a bleeding-heart type, I agree with the protesters' criticisms of the site choice. They say that "brownfields" (unoccupied or abandoned industrial space) should be repurposed before greenspace is converted to industrial use. Yep, I'm on board. They say that areas of denser population would offer better sources of factory labor; I'm inclined to believe that too. So far, everybody's making sense.

Residents along the highway where Ford's megasite will likely be built would certainly prefer to see it erected elsewhere. Nearby enough to attract engineers and managers who might help nudge their property values northward, of course, but far enough away that they're spared the burdens of additional traffic or construction of anything taller than the township's oldest surviving barn.

Frozen in time

This is the American small-town ideal. It was forged in villages like Marshall as overcrowding and pollution became synonymous with progress. While early factories sprung up pretty much wherever the local conditions favored them (flat land for building; creeks for runoff; large bodies of water or railroad access to move goods), the American industrial revolution didn't really kick into high gear until mechanized production became commonplace.

These new, high-volume methods still required a large quantity of manual labor, which tilted the balance in favor of America's growing population centers. And so Americans left the farms for the cities in search of work and, with the advent of the streetcar, could move to the outer perimeters of these economic powerhouses, putting dirty industry miles away from their civilized living spaces. These sleepy communities propagated outward from every American industrial center in the form of the suburb.

In these bedroom communities, strict zoning was designed to prevent industrial and commercial buildings from infringing on the tranquility of the new miniature suburban "estate."  So now industry has leapfrogged to outlying towns and villages, where land can still be inexpensive and plentiful. Remote portions of right-to-work states became ideal for industrial development.

But in Michigan and other Rust Belt states, distrust of the manufacturing sector has been cultivated by decades of consolidation and flat-out abandonment.


Even within the city of Marshall, some have no interest in Ford's investment. They survived previous rounds of industrial "restructuring" and see no reason to invite what could very well end up being another. Marshall, like its equivalents all over the industrial Midwest, isn't the same old factory town of America's industrial heyday. Architectural remnants from the gilded age to the roaring '20s have been preserved wherever possible (Marshall is known for this, in fact), but nostalgia for the "good" old days of belching smokestacks and the din of ceaselessly advancing rail stock is long gone.

Those who remain may not see Marshall as an industrial town, but rather as a time capsule already filled with the best it could ever offer. Some in this community would sooner see others take the risk. Why take a chance on some boondoggle that might only increase the likelihood — and potential pace — of change? While some may call it "progress," in the quieter parts of America, there is no greater enemy.

Related video: