Originally appeared in Louisville Business First | July 7, 2023
Aron Csont says the massive project he’s a part of is not only big in scope — but technical in nature.
“On the outside, it’s an automotive plant. But on the inside, it’s almost like a lab. You’re building it to the specs of a hospital,” said Csont, project director with Michigan-based Barton Malow, the lead firm on the $5.8 billion BlueOval SK Battery Park, under construction now in Glendale, Kentucky.
It will likely be the largest project ever undertaken by the crews doing the work.
“Not just for individual careers, but for the companies,” said Joe Alford, senior site manager with Lexington-based Gray Construction. Gray Construction is pairing with Barton Malow on the enormous endeavor, which includes two 4.2 million-square-foot facilities on 1,500 acres. The firms broke ground in December.
Once finished, the plant will produce electric vehicle batteries for BlueOval SK, a joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and SK On.
“We’ve all done clean rooms in the past, but hardly ever do you run into a circumstance where you have a clean room that’s a million square feet,” Alford said, referencing a controlled environment, free of pollutants, needed for EV battery manufacturing.
“Factor all of that — the details and the intricacies — into it, and then you give it an injection of steroids, and there’s what we’re dealing with.”
Along with being the biggest project for the construction firms, it is Kentucky’s largest economic development deal to date. It is anticipated to directly bring 5,000 jobs to the state, but its indirect economic impact will be even greater than that.
While that’s good news for the state, it means big changes for the small community of Glendale, in Hardin County.
With a population of about 2,700 people in the Census tract that includes unincorporated Glendale, the rural community is letting go of its slower pace to charge full speed ahead into the future of battery innovation.
This comes as Ford and allies try to ramp up electric vehicle production in general. In addition to the plants in Kentucky, it’s also building a third battery plant and an EV assembly plant near Memphis, Tennessee.
The two plants represent a massive $11.4 billion bet on the growing vehicle category.
Earlier this year, Ford announced a similar $3.5 billion plant in Michigan.
Hardin County as a whole is already working to accommodate the future growth with new apartments, roads, utilities, businesses and more.
With the first plant not finishing up until 2025, Keith Taul, Hardin County judge executive, said the county is still in planning phases, undergoing studies and getting community feedback on how to best manage the upcoming growth.
“We definitely have our challenges ahead of us, but it’s all exciting challenges,” Taul said.
What it takes to build an electric vehicle battery plant
Though building a facility this large is a complicated process, Alford said it still just brick and mortar.
“You put the same steps forward,” Alford said. “You have to do the dirt work, then you do the foundations, then you set the steel.”
One main difference between an EV facility and a general automotive manufacturing facility is its specificity. A general plant tends to be a wide open facility without air conditioning, said Csont. But EV battery plants will contain materials that can be affected by the elements, so the structures need to be pristine.
Eric Grubb, director of New Footprint Construction for Ford Land, is overseeing the project in Glendale. For Building 1, the team has completed steel erection, and crews are approaching the completion of roofing and siding.
He said they are aggressively working on the interior, which includes the concrete, the electrical and piping. Steel for Building 2 is expected to be on its way up soon as well.
Construction alone has nearly 2,400 people working in Hardin County on the plants, which when completed will produce more than 80 gigawatts annually, enough to power more than 800,000 automobiles.
“We will peak at somewhere around just under 4,000 tradesmen when both of these builds are up and are hitting their stride,” Alford said.
About 20% of the current workers are local. When it comes to subcontractors, Alford said about 15% are Kentucky-based.
Gray Construction’s local ties were a factor in bringing that company onto the project, Csont said.
“We had a relationship with Gray Construction on another project,” Csont said. “With Gray having a very large presence in Kentucky, they knew the subcontractor market, they knew the labor force market. And we saw that as really an opportunity to join forces.”
The buildings will take up roughly half of the 1,500 acres at the Glendale megasite, so there’s room for growth, though no definite plans.
Building apartments and meeting future needs
A lot of new residential will be focused around Elizabethtown, Hardin County’s largest city. Just about 10 miles from Glendale, it has a population of about 32,000 people.
And building new housing is where a lot of Louisville-based companies are coming into play.
Louisville-based PRG Commercial Property Advisors has listed land within Elizabethtown and Hardin County. Taylor Thompson, partner and principal broker with PRG, said Elizabethtown is where most of the services are that are going to attract developers.
“E-town is where the schools are, it’s where your Kroger groceries are, it’s where your restaurants and dining are,” Thompson said. “I think that’s going to be where most of those people end up, especially with families and kids.”
One of those developers is Joseph Waldman with Toronto-based Highgates Development. The company is building a $45 million apartment complex called The Gantry in Elizabethtown, located at 5106 South Wilson Road. That complex is being built in two phases: The first with 216 units and the second with 204 units. The group had been interested in Elizabethtown for a long time, and now the market is on fire.
Waldman said working with Elizabethtown’s planning and zoning officials was a smooth process, only taking a couple of months.
Since the BlueOval SK announcement, Elizabethtown has received preliminary development proposals for approximately 4,900 multifamily housing units, said Joe Reverman, director of planning and development for Elizabethtown.
Of those, it has permitted 1,152 multifamily housing units, along with 203 single-family houses, over a period of approximately 18 months.
For reference, in years past, it has typically permitted a little over 100 single-family houses per year, and around 50 multifamily units per year.
Property values have gone up significantly with all the demand. Taul said for a prime piece of real estate in Elizabethtown, a buyer may need to spend anywhere in the range of $100,000 to $150,000 an acre.
Danny Hutchinson, Hardin County Property Valuation Administrator, mirrored that sentiment.
He said he’s seen a 20-acre plot in the city sell to an apartment developer for $4 million, which is about $200,000 per acre.
In Glendale, what used to be a $10,000-per-acre piece of land now may cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per acre, Hutchinson said.
A developing commercial corridor in the area
When you have growth in the number of rooftops, you can expect growth in business as well.
Thompson said he doesn’t see a shortage of retail businesses in Elizabethtown. But it’s safe to predict service-type businesses will increase.
“Anytime there’s more population, you’re going to have general growth in retail,” Thompson said. “You’re going to have more restaurants, you’re going to have more hair salons, nail salons, that type of stuff.”
It’s the bigger cities that are working to attract retail and restaurants, Taul said.
One hotel is already underway in Elizabethtown from Louisville-based Weyland Ventures. A boutique hotel is set to occupy the former Hardin County Courthouse.
Meanwhile, manufacturing has already been one of the largest industries for Hardin County, and we’ll likely see that increase.
The Elizabethtown Hardin County Industrial Foundation website says there are more than 9,500 people employed in manufacturing in the area, with more than $300 million invested from companies.
Since the BlueOval SK announcement, Taul said companies are wanting to set up operations close to the plant.
“There are a bunch of other companies looking to come in and support BlueOval,” he said.
Thompson said between BlueOval’s project in Glendale and the $2 billion Envision AESC EV battery facility, planned for Bowling Green, we’ll likely see a spike in the automotive supplier industry up and down the Interstate 65 corridor.
Kentucky already has strong ties to the automotive sector with Ford, Toyota and General Motors all having plants in the state.
The EV battery sector has grown in Kentucky in just the last few years. Toyota recently announced a $591 million expansion to build battery electric vehicles in Georgetown, and Rivian, which develops electric trucks, also has plans to invest $10 million into a remanufacturing facility in Bullitt County.
Announced EV-related investment in the commonwealth now exceeds $10 billion and projects to create well over 10,000 Kentucky jobs, according to the state.
To meet the demand of all this growth, Hardin County is going to need major investments in its infrastructure.
Since it’s still early in the process, Taul said there’s still a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Government officials in Elizabethtown, the county and state have started having discussions about expansions to sewer and water systems, roads, emergency services and more.
“There are lots of things that we’re looking at and working with BlueOval SK to try to figure out how to serve not only them but to serve that whole community,” Taul said.
All of those changes will likely cost a large sum. Taul said there’s probably been $25 million already invested to install a sewer system and water lines to the BlueOval SK site alone. Most of that has come from state funding through grants.
Taul didn’t want to underestimate the investment into infrastructure with an exact number but said it would be likely in the hundreds of millions. The county is working on collaborating with Ford, along with local and state governments, to meet that need.
Updating plans and keeping a small town feel in Glendale
Glendale itself is far more rural than Elizabethtown. Taul said officials are taking measures to keep the small town feel of the area.
Part of that includes roadway changes. Construction on the Glendale interchange at Exit 86 of Interstate 65 is underway. The $37 million project involves building a new bridge over the interstate, changing up ramps, and reconfiguring the intersection of U.S. 31 W and Ky. 222 into the BlueOval SK worksite.
A comprehensive plan update also is required. Part of that includes developing the zoning regulations that will hold onto that bubble around Glendale.
Adam King, director and building official with Hardin County Planning and Design, said via email the organization started working on updating the Comprehensive Plan in September 2022 and hired Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group out of Louisville to help with the process. They’ve held five open houses to generate feedback from the entire county.
Since the BlueOval SK announcement, King said the Planning and Design department has received 22 zoning change applications in the Glendale area. Most have been for a commercial or industrial zone, except for one that was for a multifamily zone.
The office is anticipating increasing the size of its urban areas to accommodate residential growth, as well as make changes to its industrial areas around the BlueOval SK site.
But a goal for historic downtown Glendale is to have it protected as one of the county’s “rural villages,” King said.
“A major theme in the feedback we’ve received has been accommodating the anticipated growth and development but maintaining the rural character and small town charm,” King said.
By the numbers as of June 8
- 6.8 million cubic yards of earth moved
- 180,105 cubic yards of concrete placed
- 38,000 tons of steel erected
- 1.6 million square feet of roofing installed
- 300,000 square feet of siding installed
Source: Barton Malow
- Population: 2,710
- Median age: 41.5
- Race & Ethnicity: 85% white; 8% black; 2% asian; 2% two +; 3% hispanic
- Per capita annual income: $34,156
- Persons below the poverty line: 3.6%
- Commute to work time, on average: 23.1 minutes
- Population: 31,066
- Median age: 36.5
- Race & Ethnicity: 77% white; 12% black; 2% asian; 4% two +; 4% hispanic
- Per capita annual income: $30,361
- Persons below the poverty line: 12%
- Commute to work time, on average: 20.6 minutes
- Population: 111,607
- Median age: 37.8
- Race & Ethnicity: 75% white; 11% black; 2% asian; 5% two +; 6% hispanic
- Per capita annual income: $30,970
- Persons below the poverty line: 11.1%
- Commute to work time, on average: 22.2 minutes