Jobs 18 Months Away At New Mich. Battery Plant

President Obama travels to Holland, Mich., to attend the groundbreaking for a factory that will make batteries for electric cars. The $300 million factory is one of nine battery plants the government is helping to fund with its economic stimulus program.

Obama often talks about these plants as engines for a new, clean-energy economy. But the plants have been slow to jump-start the nation's sputtering job market.

Well before Thursday's ceremonial groundbreaking, construction crews were hard at work, spreading fresh, white gravel over the muddy field where the factory will eventually stand, and erecting a tent over two shiny electric cars.

Batteries built in Holland will one day power the Chevy Volt from General Motors, as well as a new electric version of the Ford Focus. Civic leaders who lobbied for the plant think the batteries will also give a jolt to the surrounding community.

"We've taken our lumps in this economy," says Randy Thelen, who heads the economic development company Lakeshore Advantage. "To see all the people that are working out there on the construction site today, to consider how many people are going to be parking their cars in the parking lot to work there in the next 18 months, it's something. It's just a great shot in the arm for our community."

Thelen says Holland will actually be home to two advanced battery plants. Together, they received some $450 million in grants from the federal government.

"The stimulus certainly has done its job here in Holland, Mich.," Thelen says. "We've got great opportunities in front of us, many of which have been driven by the stimulus package."

But that has created some mixed feelings in western Michigan. This is Republican country, where John McCain outpolled Obama two years ago with 61 percent of the vote. The Holland area also has an active Tea Party movement.

Earlier this week, about 100 Tea Party members gathered at a local community center for their regular meeting. Mostly, they were there to talk about the upcoming primary election. But they also arranged what they called a "Tea Party Welcome" for the president's visit.

Jim Chiodo, who led the meeting, says he has nothing against the jobs the new battery plant will eventually provide. But he doesn't believe it's the government's role to be picking winners and losers — or to be helping either one.

"For every winner, there's 10 losers," Chiodo says. "It's really, really hard to take a position that's against your hometown. And I'm not against my hometown. I love Holland. I've been here 25 years. It's a great town. But it's going to hurt towns like Holland when this gravy train gets turned off."

Chiodo is not alone in his skepticism. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found 54 percent of Americans now disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy. Despite White House claims that the stimulus has saved or created up to 3.5 million jobs so far, unemployment stands at 9.5 percent.

Michigan's unemployment rate is higher still: 13.2 percent.

Angie Barksdale of the employment training program Michigan Works says the pain reaches across the state — from Detroit to Lake Michigan.

"Many people don't realize that even the west side has been hit as hard as the east side," Barksdale says. "Especially when you look at the stats for the city of Holland in particular, there are pockets that are even hungrier."

The battery plant breaking ground Thursday will eventually employ about 400 people. But most of those jobs are at least 18 months away.

"I can't even wait 18 hours," says Cedric Jones, who recently lost a manufacturing job. "I need a job like right now because I've got to pay rent. I don't know what the president's going to do about it. But whatever he can because, actually, I do need a stimulus package."

The administration admits that most of the new battery plants it is helping to fund won't be operating before the end of this year. But in five years, officials say, those plants will be making batteries for 500,000 new cars a year, and those batteries will cost 70 percent less.

"For the country and for communities like Holland, it is important to take the long-term view on this," Thelen says. "Rome wasn't built in a day. And the electric vehicle industry won't be built in a day. But it has great potential. It has great opportunity. We're going to be in the forefront of that in Holland, Mich., and we're thrilled to be in that position."

That long-term view can be a tough sell, though, for people looking for jobs today and politicians looking for votes in November.

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