To prepare for Panasonic, state will need to avoid pitfalls in infrastructure and education, Lt. Gov. Toland says at event in Lawrence
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
As Kansas prepares for the arrival of Panasonic’s $4 billion battery plant in De Soto, a top state official says a similar operation in another state could provide valuable lessons on the possible pitfalls of such megaprojects.
Lt. Gov. David Toland was at Lawrence’s Peaslee Tech on Friday to address about a dozen people involved with Douglas County’s manufacturing sector, and he spoke about how the state hopes to manage the growth that the Panasonic plant is expected to cause. As the Journal-World previously reported, the plant is expected to employ about 4,000 people and begin production of electric vehicle batteries by the first quarter of 2025. Toland said the growth could cause problems in a wide variety of fields — from transportation to education — if the state wasn’t properly prepared.
To demonstrate what kinds of problems megaprojects can cause, Toland pointed to the Tesla Gigafactory near Reno, Nevada — a nearly 5.5 million-square-foot facility that produces lithium-ion batteries and other electric vehicle components. The factory’s roughly 8,000 employees rely on a nearby two-lane highway, Interstate 80, to get to and from work, and Toland said any accident on the highway causes a total shutdown that makes it impossible to access the plant.
“You can’t get either to or from that plant, because they haven’t built the lane capacity you need to deal with it,” Toland said.
In addition, with more workers and their families moving to the Reno area, schools had to educate more children, and Toland said there just weren’t enough classrooms available. He said students sometimes were forced to attend school for a week and then take a week off so other students could use the classroom space. That issue might resonate with Lawrence residents in particular, because the Lawrence school district is currently considering whether to shutter some of its schools ahead of the next school year.
Toland said he’s confident that Kansas will figure out a way to avoid the kinds of problems that accompanied the project in Nevada.
“That isn’t going to happen here, because we have folks that know how to solve problems and pull together and figure it out,” Toland said. “So whether we’re talking about K-10 expansion that’s coming, whether we’re talking about the need to expand infrastructure — water, sewer, power, everything — I feel really good about the future. But I don’t want to not convey that it’s going to be hard, but we’re lucky to have these challenges.”
• • •
In addition to his comments about the Panasonic plant, Toland said the state was planning a campaign to encourage former Kansans who had moved away to return to the state.
Toland didn’t have many specifics about what the campaign would involve, but he said it would target people who were educated in Kansas and then took jobs out of state.
“We’re not trying to get New Yorkers or Californians who’ve been in Orange County since they were born to move to Kansas,” Toland said. “We welcome them if they want to, but that’s not the target. The target is folks that grew up here, graduated from an institution here, and left the state for economic opportunities elsewhere.”
Toland said Kansas was aiming to have economic opportunities just as good as — or better than — any number of major U.S. cities, and he said that was backed up by billions of dollars in new business investments in the state over the past few years.