VinFast, the Vietnamese automaker planning a $4 billion electric vehicle manufacturing facility at Chatham’s Triangle Innovation Point, hopes to begin moving dirt at its 1,977-acre site on or around July 1.
First, though, the company must acquire all that land.
“We’re still waiting for them to finalize that,” Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne said. “They’re getting close.”
Any delays, according to LaMontagne, could be attributed to determining exactly which parcels at the TIP site VinFast intends to utilize.
“They’re adding two small parcels to the overall tract,” he said. “And they just need a little bit more room, and they’re trying to line those up. I think if they don’t get those properties finalized, they’ll just redesign the layout.”
And when the land acquisition is completed and the incentives plans are finalized (see sidebar story), LaMontagne anticipates things will move rapidly.
“The way I see this going is that we’re at the initial stages of getting some of these details lined up, and then once those are all completed, it’s going to be ‘pedal to the floor,’” he said. “As they continue to remind us, ‘fast’ is in their name.”
When VinFast gets ready, he said, things move very quickly.
“And that was evident in the selection as well,” LaMontagne said, referring to the breakneck process culminating in Chatham’s TIP site being selected back in late March — which resulted in local and state staff cramming “about four months worth of work” into three weeks.
“And so they’re very fast — once they decide, they just move,” he said. “And I love that, but it’s also intense.”
LaMontagne said most of VinFast’s activity now is centered on working with state government agencies on issues like permitting and erosion control. The company has engaged in introductory meetings with an array of departments in preparation for groundbreaking and will, in short order, begin more regular meetings on the local level as construction looms — particularly in regard to water and sewer infrastructure.
VinFast hopes to have an official groundbreaking event for the public on Sept. 22.
Michael Smith, the president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation, said his office has maintained a close relationship with VinFast and state leadership in the 80 or so days since the announcement, which was the largest economic project to date in state history.
“We’ve certainly been a part of a number of discussions in different ways,” he said. “And we’re certainly continuing to maintain a close relationship with state leadership as it relates to where the project is, and we’re ready to go.”
The county’s partners at the state level — including the N.C. Dept. of Commerce and the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, and “a large group of different stakeholders” — have been “outstanding,” according to Smith.
“Things are moving exactly as we would want them to,” he said.
Supply chain issues have impacted construction projects everywhere, but Smith said VinFast was “well aware” of those challenges and has been mitigating potential issues and taking steps to meet its production targets — including having VinFast’s premium SUV models rolling off the assembly line by the summer of 2024.
“That’s the plan,” Smith said. “That’s why everybody’s moving as fast as they are.”
Meanwhile, activity at the county’s other megasite, the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site in Siler City, continues. Neither Smith nor LaMontagne would speculate on the timing of any announcement, but anticipation on all fronts is high.
“I’m just hoping really soon,” LaMontagne said. “We’re getting a lot of activity. Of course, I think the announcement of VinFast is just showing everybody that this region of the state — and particularly Chatham County, with two megasites — is primed for this type of development. So we’re seeing a lot of attention.”
At a recent joint meeting of his commissioners and Pittsboro’s town board, he remarked that Chatham already has, in VinFast, the largest economic development project the state of North Carolina has ever seen.
“We can break our old record,” LaMontagne said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I mean, we’re getting a lot of big, big companies, and a lot of really good companies [looking at the CAM site]. So I’m hoping that something will happen really soon.”
Smith is mostly mum on specifics about discussions regarding the CAM site and the possibility of other automotive-related companies coming here, other than to say: “We’re certainly continuing to have discussions with other large projects that are in the industry.”
“We have a lot of interest, a lot of strong activity, the CAM site,” he said, adding that “that’s where all of our time has been spent” in the last month or so.
“At this stage, we continue to talk to various, several very large operations. And we’re grateful that Tim [Booras, the CAM site’s co-owner] is such a great partner on that.”
So many large industrial sites in the southeast have been acquired by large manufacturers in the last few years, he said, making any site within proximity to Greensboro and the Triangle “premium.”
Meanwhile, the EDC office is considering bringing a project consultant to help with the VinFast project — something he said would be “another huge positive for the project and for our office.”
Smith’s workload has been such that one of Chatham’s county commissioners recently inquired whether he’d caught up on sleep lately.
“I just said, ‘I’ll sleep in another year, when all this is behind us,’” he said.
That’s if there’s time even then: a recent report in Triangle Business Journal said the arrival of VinFast and the Toyota battery plant coming to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite — North Carolina’s lone automotive projects — might just be the first in a string of automotive-related projects coming to the Tar Heel state. TBJ quoted Christopher Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, as saying that automotive is now a “leading sector of activity for us.”
As of earlier this month, Chung’s office had a pipeline of more than 250 potential projects — including 42 in the automotive sector — that would create 80,000 new jobs.
That doesn’t include the 7,500 positions VinFast plans to fill at its plant, where production is expected to start in July 2024 with 150,000 vehicles per year. According to the Dept. of Commerce, vehicles to be produced at the site include the VinFast VF 9, a seven-passenger all-electric SUV, and the VinFast VF 8, a five-passenger, all-electric mid-size SUV. Ultimately, VinFast hopes to produce between 200,000 and 250,000 vehicles per year at the site.
Bill Horner III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @billthethird.
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