Calling it the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ state leaders celebrate Panasonic battery plant groundbreaking; hiring likely to begin in 2023

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, left, tosses a shovel of dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant on Nov. 2, 2022.

It took at least half of a song-and-dance routine for Kansas to convince Panasonic to locate its $4 billion, 4,000-job electric vehicle battery plant in the state.

Kansas officials revealed that detail while offering a host of thank-yous and a few announcements on Wednesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for the massive plant, which is now officially under construction on about 300 acres of property in nearby De Soto.

Perhaps the most significant announcement was that Panasonic plans to begin hiring employees for the plant in the middle of 2023, adding to its previous announcement that it hopes to be producing electric vehicle batteries in De Soto by March 2025.

But the oddest detail from Wednesday’s event may have been that a staff member with the Kansas Department of Commerce actually composed a song about the values of the Panasonic Corporation that was included in the final package used to convince the Japanese company to choose the De Soto site over a competing location in Oklahoma.

“We knew we’re in a neck-and-neck battle,” Lt. Gov. David Toland said, explaining to the groundbreaking crowd why the state decided to do something a little nontraditional.

It worked. Panasonic chose Kansas over Oklahoma, and the De Soto project now is expected to be critical in Panasonic’s efforts to provide electric vehicle batteries to Tesla and other vehicle manufacturers across the globe.

“You understand and value some of the same principles of the Panasonic foundation — cooperation, gratitude and contribution to society,” Allan Swan, president of Panasonic Energy of North America, said of the company’s decision to choose Kansas. “Kansas is full of people who work together for a common goal.”

On Wednesday, there was no doubt that Goal No. 1 now is to get this battery plant built quickly. While Wednesday’s event included the ceremonial shovels of dirt turned over by dignitaries — led by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign — there were many signs of legitimate construction underway. Large excavators were operating on the site throughout the formal groundbreaking ceremonies, and a significant number of construction workers are already on the property. The state estimates the Panasonic plant and surrounding development will produce 16,500 construction jobs.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Construction crews move earth on the site of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in De Soto on Nov. 2, 2022, as part of a project to construct a new Panasonic battery plant.

“There is a burst that has already started of construction workers coming to the area, but this is just the tip of the iceberg right now in terms of what we are going to see over the next 24 months,” Toland, who also is the state’s secretary of commerce, told the Journal-World. “You are going to see more people in hotels, restaurants, bars, RV parks. It is going to have a really significant spinoff effect. That’s the first wave.”

Douglas County should expect to feel that wave. The Panasonic site is in neighboring Johnson County, but the property is south and west of De Soto proper. The plant site is roughly a five-minute drive from the Douglas County community of Eudora and about a 20-minute drive from parts of eastern Lawrence.

Multiple leaders on Wednesday said the project would change the entire Kansas Highway 10 corridor, not just the area around De Soto.

“This is a mega project in every sense of the definition,” Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, told me.

Toland urged Douglas County leaders to begin preparing for the challenges and opportunities the project will create.

“It is going to require a lot of new housing development in Lawrence and Eudora and De Soto and in Johnson County and down to Ottawa and Baldwin City and so forth,” Toland said. “We are going to need to see action toward that at the local level. We need local governments to be ready for that and to be planning for that now.”

photo by: City of Eudora

A map shows the area planned for development by Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant.

De Soto Mayor Rick Walker said his community of about 6,500 people is busy preparing for it, with plans in the works for a water plant expansion and multiple transportation projects. Based on current land-use patterns, he said it is not unrealistic to think De Soto will have a population upward of 15,000 people in the next 10 to 15 years.

Even that number could grow significantly, depending on how area leaders decide to use thousands of acres of undeveloped property between De Soto and Eudora that once housed the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant. The Panasonic project is locating on about 300 acres of the former Army complex. The entire Army complex includes more than 6,000 acres of land, which is in various states of environmental remediation. As the land becomes clean, potentially thousands of acres will be available for everything from parkland to industrial development to homes.

In nearby Eudora, city officials are also planning for the potential of several thousand new residents in that community of about 6,500 people. Investors both locally and nationally have been inquiring about housing development opportunities. Additionally, the Eudora City Commission is in the early stages of considering a large mixed-use project along Kansas Highway 10 that would include new commercial and office development, and an arena that could host everything from sporting events to concerts. The city is contemplating seeking special STAR bond financing from the state, which is the type of financing that’s been used to create some of the larger entertainment districts in the state, including the Kansas Speedway development nearby.

There have been critics of the Panasonic project as well. Some have said the state didn’t get enough assurances that the project actually would produce the 4,000 jobs and $4 billion in investment that have been attached to the project. On Wednesday, state and company officials did describe the project as producing “up to” 4,000 jobs and “up to” $4 billion in investment.

The state has committed more than $800 million in incentives for the project.

Officials from Panasonic, which included some of the company’s top leaders from Japan, did nothing on Wednesday to dampen expectations about the jobs or investment that will be coming to the area. They noted that a large electric battery plant Panasonic operates in partnership with Tesla in Nevada indeed does employ more than 4,000 people.

Details about the types of jobs the De Soto plant will produce were sparse on Wednesday. Toland, though, said in an interview after the event that he expects “several hundred” engineering jobs to be associated with the plant, plus a mix of blue- and white-collar positions. Panasonic said job listings would start showing up on the company’s website in the next year.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Construction work is underway at the site of future Panasonic battery plant in De Soto on Nov. 2, 2022.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Shovels await a groundbreaking ceremony for Panasonic’s new battery plant in De Soto on Nov. 2, 2022.


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