Anti-China ‘propaganda' stokes fears as Michigan town weighs Gotion factory
- A major Michigan megasite project faces ongoing questions about the company’s Chinese ownership
- A local official said a public meeting on the project was shifted online out of fear outsiders would disrupt the event
- The township supervisor said ‘internet rumors’ about the project are driving the statewide interest
April 20: Michigan Senate narrowly clears $175 million for China-linked Gotion plant
April 19: Gotion controversy tests longstanding Michigan-China economic ties
April 13: Amid Gotion furor over China, Michigan vows to change how it vets firms
April 12: Gotion funding on hold in Michigan, amid uproar over China ties
April 6: Politics, rumors fueling conflict in Big Rapids over Gotion plant deal
One of Michigan’s largest economic development announcements in 2022 originated in Mecosta County, where the Big Rapids area learned it had been chosen by Gotion Inc. for a $2.36 billion electric vehicle battery factory.
Today, that factory remains in line for almost $1.1 billion in state funding in the form of $907 million in tax breaks plus $175 million from the $1.6 billion Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) fund for large-scale Michigan business projects, according to Green Charter Township. Originally planned to be built in adjoining townships, Gotion recently reduced its initial footprint to just Green Charter.
The project is starting to attract greater attention from residents and legislators statewide, who question both the state incentives and whether the U.S. subsidiary of private Gotion High-Tech Inc.’s Chinese ownership has ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is accelerating its influence over Chinese businesses.
- Chinese EV battery factory planned near Big Rapids faces renewed scrutiny
- Michigan lands two more EV battery plants, bringing up to 4,000 jobs
The issue also is attracting far-right political figures — including Tudor Dixon, the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate who spoke on a Fox News program about it. She asserted the company would have a CCP arm on-site when the factory is built, which the U.S.-based subsidiary denies.
This comes as local residents are seeking more information on how the battery project may impact roads, infrastructure and other aspects of their community, Green Charter Township Supervisor Jim Chapman told Bridge Michigan this week.
The two channels of inquiry (from local residents and outside groups) collided as the township planned to host a public meeting at Ferris State University this Wednesday, April 5. The event was recently moved to an online format amid what Chapman said were concerns that the meeting would be disrupted.
All of this is happening, he said, as “we’re not even sure if Gotion is coming (here).”
Chapman spoke with Paula Gardner, Bridge’s business editor, about why the event was moved online and what local officials feared. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you move the public meeting to online?
We have obtained information that there are a significant number of people coming from outside the area. Most of them are fed by propaganda being put out by a few and with the apparent intention of interrupting our meeting or at the very least intimidating people.
The purpose of this meeting is to allow people — our residents, our community — to learn from the people involved.
We have subject matter experts that are going to be here, we have questions that have been submitted, and we want a chance for folks to hear those answers.
And if this is going to end up with 1,000 shouting people waving signs, first off, nobody hears anything. Second of all, many (other) folks are intimidated about coming.
(It’s happened already, so) the safest way seems to be to take it to a virtual meeting.
Are you talking about people who are expressing anti-Chinese business sentiment, or is it coming from other places too?
It is the folks that think that somehow this is Chinese communism, and some of it is environmental concerns. I think we've done a fairly good job of answering both, but many people don't want to hear the answers.
What issues would be covered at the event?
Like the water system, the handling of the sewer lines, the planning we've done for how to handle vehicular traffic. There's been a lot of work on this. And (people need to determine if they) have the information to make this decision at that point.
… There are some questions that have to be answered yet. But I think we're doing a fairly good job of doing that.
Unfortunately, there are some people that see the word “China” and decide they want to go off the deep end with whatever virtue signaling they can do without listening to the facts.
You halted a very crowded meeting in March at the Township Hall
Our hall has a capacity of 111 people; we had 230 in here. Public comment went beyond the normal 20 minutes; although people have the right to speak, (this meeting did not have Gotion on the agenda). Given the overcrowding and the emotional level, it was a safety concern from the sheriff and myself. We simply had to put a stop to it. And I'm sorry, I regret having to do that. But there wasn't any choice at the time.
What are the next decisions coming from the township on this?
We're not even 100-percent sure Gotion is coming. Gotion has not made a formal, full level commitment to it. That is still up in the air; they may simply decide to pull on to go to the next state.
These protesters are not stopping Gotion. They are not going to pick up their toys and go home. They're simply going to go to another state and take $2.3 billion worth of investment to another state. And take 2,350 jobs to another state.
What signals are you getting from Gotion right now? It’s already pulled out of the Big Rapids Township portion of the project.
They do appear to be supportive of staying within Michigan, but they're a business and they're hedging their bets, and I don't blame them. Again, nothing is guaranteed.
When you were planning this did anybody anticipate the pushback that would be coming?
Dear God, no.
We knew there were questions within our community. We've done every effort we can think of to engage with our residents and answer questions.
But when I'm getting phone calls from the Thumb area, from Sault Ste. Marie, phone calls and messages from Kalamazoo, these are people who are not in our community. They are making assumptions of fact based off of propaganda so that is feeding it statewide and it's becoming an issue.
In public presentations, like on March 22 before the state Senate Appropriations Committee, you’ve seemed very proud of this project.
I don't care if it's Gotion battery planet or it's Acme toy widgets. I'm looking at what will benefit and blend in with our township and our community the best. And this is a generational level of unique opportunity for the people of our community.
And how would you describe the pushback?
Unfortunate. I don't want to say unenlightened, but there are people that are responding on a visceral level instead of trying to have an open mind and find out the facts
We're trying to be transparent and we're trying to get some facts out, good or bad. People can like the project or not like the project. That's their option. Base it off the facts and not off of internet rumors.
How many questions have you received so far? Are you expecting more?
We have 75 or 80 (as of Wednesday afternoon), but a lot of them are duplicates. I’m working with folks that I trust to be fair and honest and so we're trying to consolidate them down into a working number that we can keep in our format.
We do again want to be transparent, so before the meeting, there will be a document posted on our website with every single question that we've had. There's no reason for us to hide anything.
But if we get five questions on water usage … it makes no sense to ask the same question five times. And so there will be some consolidation in order to get as much information out to the people.
And Gotion will be participating?
To come back to the idea of Gotion’s commitment to this site, what did you initially expect from the company by now? And when would you expect to see site plans or the first wave of a next step?
Right now everything is waiting on the state Senate to come back from vacation because they still have to vote on the release of the ($175 million in SOAR) money. Then I think we will start seeing things moving. Land purchases, permit applications, things like that. But right now, we're kind of waiting on the state.
Despite what you’re hearing from some people right now, as you look ahead, do you see this as something that the community will recover from and end up valuing?
Absolutely. We've got a classic example in our county (Evart) with the (Nestle) Ice Mountain water plant. Twenty years ago, people were screaming and hollering that rivers and lakes are going to dry up and farming would become non-existent …. because of all the water they were sucking out, etc. And now they are one of the highest starting wages for general employees in the county. They are a large employer there. They bring in a significant amount of money, they support any significant number of families.
How long this will take to be the same thing, I don't know. But we're going to see.
Ultimately, what is your goal for next week’s meeting?
Just to get past the background noise to get the information to the people so they can make an informed decision. So people can decide whether they are for it based off of information, not internet rumor and innuendo.
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