BIG RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Work continues to bring a massive electric vehicle battery plant to the Big Rapids area.

Gotion, a China-based company, is investing $2.36 billion into the project, creating thousands of jobs.

The project will be just outside the city, in an industrial park near the Roben-Hood Airport that has been vacant for more than 20 years. It will span hundreds of acres and include four different plants.

Jeremy Webb with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation called the project a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for the greater Big Rapids area.”

Randy Thelen, the CEO of The Right Place, the economic development agency in Grand Rapids working on the project, said it’s even more than that.

“I’d say more than once in a generation,” Thelen told News 8 on Tuesday. “There’s literally never been anything like this in northern Michigan of this scale and of this size. So it’s maybe once in every hundred years.”

Those planning this massive electric vehicle battery plant say it will transform Big Rapids.

“We think this is an opportunity to reset a Big Rapids 2.0 if you will,” Thelen said.

The site near Big Rapids where a battery plant may be built. (Sept. 21, 2022)
A Sept. 21, 2022, photo shows the site near Big Rapids where Gotion is expected to develop its battery component facilities.

Gotion wants a workforce of 2,350. Big Rapids is a city of just over 8,000. Over the last decade, Big Rapids saw a population decline of more than 27%. It’s something Big Rapids Mayor Fred Guenther has noticed.

“I really dislike seeing 25-year-olds go to Grand Rapids for their jobs,” Guenther said. “The birthrate in Big Rapids is way down. We need young people 25 to 35 to stay in town, have kids here, help the school system, make the city grow.”

The mayor is hopeful that the new plant will turn the dwindling population numbers around. Guenther said last December, the city bought 25 acres for housing, making up for 100 lots.

“We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll sit on this for 25 years,’” he said. “Now we don’t think we’ll sit on this for 25 years. We’re hoping to build houses for people who work at the plant.”

Guenther told News 8 his community is excited to get jobs, but he’s worried “whether we can handle this growth.”

“We’re a town of about 8,000 people,” Guenther said. “We’re talking about adding 2,000 people to the job market. It takes lots of infrastructure things to improve. Places for them to live. Roads to feed the plant. Fire, water, sewer. Lots of things.”

So where will the jobs come from? Gotion says there will be enough workers, and it’s teaming up with Ferris State University to prepare the talent needed to fill the workforce.

The university’s president, Bill Pink, told News 8 on Tuesday the training could come from current programs in the College of Engineering and Technology.

“Those kinds of programs are manufacturing-based, everything from welding to other areas within the university,” Pink said.

However, Pink said there is still a lot that needs to be figured out. He said it’s even possible that the business school and cybersecurity program could be involved. New degrees may also be created.

“This will pull from the whole region,” Pink said. “Folks who maybe are working two or three jobs right now may be able to come into our region, come in get this education, go to work for a company that’s going to pay them a living wage job. It’s a game-changer for those families.”

Thelen expects more workers to come from nearby counties where there is a history of manufacturing.

“You look through the history of Osceola County and Mecosta County, the number of manufacturing jobs they used to have … today have far less or have closed altogether,” Thelen said. “So there’s a history of manufacturing there the company expects to tap into.”

“You’re going to see people coming from Lake County, Osceola County, even Mason County, Oceana, Newaygo,” Thelen added. “And serve as that northern lower Michigan regional hub from an employment standpoint.”

But Thelen insisted that completing the workforce will take place “over a period of years.”

“It’s not like they go from zero to 2,000 people overnight,” Thelen said. “You’re going to see them stage this over time. The initial is 500 or 600 people. It’s a big number but it’s achievable, and you start to build it from there.”

Guenther also said he’s concerned about traffic in the area.

“If you know that part of Big Rapids, it’s a two-lane road running out that way,” Guenther said.

Thelen said traffic may be up during shift changes, but it won’t be anything significant.

“It’s not the type of traffic that might come into an amusement park or a shopping center that’s an around-the-clock operation,” Thelen said. “We don’t anticipate that. The facility is located in a perfect location. The community had planned for this for many years.”

Thelen said traffic engineers have already studied the area, and all that’s been recommended are some additional turn lanes and new traffic signals.

“You’ve got the freeway right there to handle much of the traffic. If you look at the traffic counts in the area, they’re more than capable of handling this increase. In terms of widening roads from four lanes to six, I don’t see the need for that. And so far, neither have the traffic engineers,” he said.

Thelen said the project is going to be big for local businesses.

“At the end of the day, growth is good,” he said. “It brings some new energy into the community. It helps to bring new shoppers into the stores. New customers for restaurants.”

“There’s no question the impact of this project directly for those who get to work there,” Thelen added. “The suppliers, the small businesses that get to meet the needs of the customers or their employees. The benefits are pretty substantial.”

Guenther hopes the battery plant will spur growth for new businesses too.

“If you’ve been to Big Rapids, we could use some more restaurants,” Guenther said. “I hear every day, ‘Oh good, the plant’s coming, we’ll get an Olive Garden.’”