During a Rivian Town Hall meeting in Social Circle Tuesday night, economic developers faced a tough crowd full of skeptical locals against the incoming multibillion dollar electric vehicle manufacturing plant planned to comprise 2,000 acres across Morgan and Walton Counties.
Rivian released the project’s site plan this week, unveiling a massive industrial campus calling for up to 20 million square feet of building space. Dozens of citizens from Morgan County showed up, including Rutledge Mayor Bruce Altznauer as well as Morgan County leaders: County Commissioner Ben Riden, County Commissioner and JDA member Andy Ainslie, County Manager Adam Mestres, and JDA member Bob Hughes.
Economic Developers Shane Short and Serra Hall delivered a presentation explaining the emerging details of the project, outlining the newly released site plan, and tackled various rumors circulating the community about the project.
The Town Hall was conducted in hopes of alleviating common concerns raised by local citizens, but hundreds of people in attendance balked at the pair, shouting out in frustration over the seemingly unstoppable Rivian plant.
“What can we do to stop this project?” yelled one woman as the crowd echoed her sentiments.
“We don’t want this!” interrupted another woman during Short’s presentation, garnering applause from the crowd.
“The politicians only care about business. They don’t care about us. They don’t care about the people!" shouted another man during the meeting.
Citizens raised a host of concerns and criticisms over the coming Rivian development throughout the meeting. Some citizens were concerned over increased traffic, noise, and strain on water, sewage and utility services in the area.
Others were worried that Rivian would trigger increases in property taxes to pay for all the incentives and infrastructure necessary to accommodate the project. Others objected to the loss of historic farmland and the erosion of the area’s rural character.
Some feared they would not be able to sell their nearby houses for a decent price since most prospective buyers would not want to live so close to a massive manufacturing plant. Some worried more industries, hotels, and large-scale developments would follow Rivian, eventually transforming the rural region into an overcrowded urban center. Others worried that if Rivian flops and closes shop that the community would be stuck with an abandoned autoplant.
"If this fails, what assurances can you give us that you all will put it back the way it was?" asked one man from the crowd.
"There are no assurances in the business world," admitted Short.
The crowd was particularly critical of the Joint Development Authority (JDA), the four-county board tasked with overseeing the development of Stanton Springs, accusing members of secrecy, unethical behavior, a lack of transparency, lying, and even profiting financially off the Rivian deal at the expense of the citizens they represent.
Short and Hall adamantly denied all of these accusations.
Since a large portion of the Rivian Plant is set to be built on the old Verner Family farmland in Rutledge, former JDA Chairman Alan Verner became a target of ire for the crowd. Members of the crowd said that Verner used his position as JDA Chairman for personal profit before retiring from the JDA in the summer of 2021.
Since Rivian talks began a full six months before Gov. Kemp announced the project in December, certain crowd members railed against Verner and other JDA members for arranging the project without public input.
“How is that not unethical? How is that not a conflict of interest,” asked JoEllen Artz of Rutledge during the meeting about the former JDA Chairman Verner selling his own land to make the Rivian project possible.
“There was nothing illegal about it,” retorted Short. “I challenge any of you to present evidence of any impropriety.” Short told the crowd that Verner’s actions were entirely legal and ethical, vouching that Verner recused himself from all meetings concerning Rivian before retiring from the JDA.
“He always left the room,” began Short, before the crowd erupted in mocking laughter, unconvinced by Short’s defense.
“You don’t have to believe me,” continued Short before being interrupted again.
“I don’t believe you!” shouted another man at Short, as the crowd applauded and nodded along in agreement.
Short spent a significant portion of time explaining why the project was kept a secret for months before a deal with Rivian was finalized. The JDA and other involved economic developers like Short and Hall, were required to sign non-disclosure agreements with Rivian before negotiations could even begin.
“In the economic development world, that’s how it works with every project or company I have ever worked with,” explained Short. “That’s the game. You don’t even get the opportunity to compete if you don’t play by the rules. That's how it is everywhere…That’s the way it works in a capitalistic society. That’s the process. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s just what the process is.”
Short explained that large companies require non-disclosure agreements for various reasons, including preventing competing companies from knowing their plans, protecting stock and shareholder interests, avoiding employee disruption before a decision is made, and so forth.
“It is not that your elected officials or the JDA wanted to keep this a secret from you,” said Short. “There was no intent to keep the public from knowing what’s going on.”
Short went on to tout Rivian as a project the community could be proud of on multiple fronts, including the company’s heightened focus on environmental stewardship, reducing the carbon footprint in the world through producing sustainable electric vehicles, and for the thousands of high-paying jobs that will be created.
Short noted that Rivian has plans to partner with the school systems in the area to help cultivate a workforce from surrounding counties. Short also noted that Rivian is going above and beyond to preserve as much of the trees, greenspace and wetlands as possible on the 2,000 acres designated for the plant.
Rivian will invest up to $5 billion into the new plant, generate 7,500 jobs, and churn out 400,000 electric vehicles per year once fully operational.
Attendees of Tuesday’s meeting repeatedly asked what actions they could take to stop Rivian from coming to Stanton Springs North.
Short reluctantly directed unhappy attendees to upcoming zoning hearings in Morgan and Walton Counties as the only option left for Rivian opponents.
“Well, rezoning has to take place first. That is all public. That’s where you have to go to state your opposition now,” said Short, noting that large portions of land in Morgan and Walton counties must be rezoned in order to accommodate Rivian’s proposed site plan.
Hall warned that while citizens will be allowed to attend rezoning hearings at each county’s planning commission and board of commissioners meetings, they should be aware that simply opposing the project would not result in a rezoning denial.
“The project will not be denied just because one group doesn’t like the project,” said Hall. “It has to be done on legal grounds.”
Morgan County’s Planning Commission will review rezoning requests for Rivian during the Thursday, Feb. 24 meeting at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the county administration building, located at 150 East Washington Street in Madison.
The planning commission will vote to either recommend approval or denial of Rivian’s request before it goes before the Morgan County Board of Commissioners for final approval on Tuesday, March 1, at 10 a.m., held in the same location.
Andy Ainslie, a Morgan County Commissioner and JDA member, is hopeful that the community will eventually embrace Rivian and see the benefits the company brings to the region.
“I think we need a few more meetings like this and as the community becomes more educated about Rivian, I think we will get to a good place,” said Ainslie.
Commissioner Ben Riden, who attended Tuesday’s Town Hall in Social Circle, expressed some reservations about Rivian.
“It may bring jobs, which is a good thing, but I am concerned about how we are going to manage this growth in the county,” said Riden. “We have to go about it in the right way.”