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Why Sunbelt states are lobbying hard to attract electric car makers


The future of the auto industry is electric, so when electric vehicle makers look to build new plants, states will go all out to woo them. Sun Belt states such as Georgia see an opening to chip away at the auto dominance Michigan and the Motor City have cemented for over a century. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports from Atlanta.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Rivian is one of the hottest electric car startups. And though it's only produced a few hundred pickup trucks so far, the California company is already valued more than Ford. So when Rivian saw bids for a $5 billion plant that would employ 7,500 people, Georgia officials lobbied for it hard.


BRIAN KEMP: It's a great day to be a Georgian, and it's even a better day to be announcing the largest single economic development project ever in our state's history.

GRINGLAS: And this month, with two of their sleek pickups behind him, Governor Brian Kemp announced Rivian was coming to Georgia. He called his state the economic engine of the Southeast.


KEMP: And now a world leader in electric vehicles and electric mobility. The fact is we did not get here by accident.

GRINGLAS: So why Georgia? Well, there's money - lots of it. And while details of Rivian's deal with Georgia aren't public yet, these bids typically include tax breaks, cheap shovel-ready mega sites, infrastructure upgrades and workforce training. But that's not everything.

NATHANIEL HORADAM: The growing population and the diverse population and the younger population - that's what the Midwest does not have right now.

GRINGLAS: Nathaniel Horadam is with the Atlanta-based Center for Transportation and the Environment. He says the auto industry has a growing footprint in the Southeast.

HORADAM: Whether that's Kia here in Georgia; whether that is Toyota, Honda, Hyundai in Alabama; BMW, Volvo in South Carolina.

GRINGLAS: In all those states, union strength is pretty low, and that's enticing for lots of companies. Pat Wilson is Georgia's economic development commissioner.

PAT WILSON: That has played a major factor in really the rebirth of manufacturing all across the Southern belt of states.

GRINGLAS: The Sun Belt has attracted lots of new investment in electric vehicles, especially from startups. Tesla is building a huge factory in Texas. Georgia had already landed a big battery plan. And Wilson thinks Rivian will attract more suppliers and more electric car companies to Georgia.

WILSON: There's a whole ecosystem that has to be created in the United States. So every time you form a piece of that ecosystem, it helps with the next one.

GRINGLAS: But here's the thing. Back in September, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer said that ecosystem - it already exists, and it's in Michigan.


GRETCHEN WHITMER: It's time to put the world on notice that Michigan remains the center of high-tech electric vehicle production in the U.S.

GRINGLAS: Michigan alone still attracted more auto investment in the decade after the Great Recession than all the Southeast states combined, and the state has scored some big electric vehicle projects. But most have been from legacy companies like GM, not the buzzy startups. So this fall, Michigan launched new programs designed to compete for those projects. Kristin Dziczek is with the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: The amount of investment going on in the auto industry right now is off the charts, and every state is trying to be that future capital of electrification.

GRINGLAS: While governors may claim their state will lead the electric vehicle future, Dziczek says it's anyone's game.

DZICZEK: It's not entirely clear who owns this landscape. That's why I'm like, everything's up for grabs.

GRINGLAS: Whatever geographic reshuffling happens could shape the industry for decades to come. This new Rivian plant guarantees Georgia, at least, will be a real player.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.