Construction on the much-touted Panasonic lithium battery factory officially got underway Wednesday with the groundbreaking at the Sunflower Army ammunition plant near De Soto.
With a price tag of $4 billion, the 2.5 million-square-foot facility stands to become the largest development in Johnson County history.
Driving the news — and impact to USD 232 in De Soto: The ceremony, which took place in the shadow of the Sunflower water towers, was not open to the public but nevertheless attracted around 300 government and company dignitaries as well as reporters. It included much praise and thanks, as well as a check for $25,000 donated to Unified School District 232 by Megan Myungwon Lee, chair and chief executive officer of Panasonic North America.
- The USD 232 administration intends to direct that money toward programming on career and technical education, “real world learning” and career development, said spokesperson Alvie Cater in an email afterwards.
- “We are excited about potential connections for our students through Panasonic and will engage with the company to identify innovative opportunities for students to participate and discover new career paths in the areas of advanced manufacturing, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” he wrote.
Diving into specifics: Several speakers talked about the uphill effort in pulling together a deal package quickly.
- Lt. Gov. David Toland referenced Kansas’ legalization of sports betting. “If someone a year ago today had said, ‘Do you want to make a bet that on Nov. 2, 2022, we’re going to be breaking ground on one of the largest EV battery plants in the world in the state of Kansas?’ I’m not sure I would have taken that bet,” he said.
- Kansas at the time had never won an economic development project of more than a billion dollars, and the Sunflower site had sat vacant for a quarter century, he noted. Kansas also needed quick bi-partisan cooperation to approve the incentive plan that made it possible for Kansas to compete with Oklahoma, the other main contender for the plant, he said.
How Kansas won the bidding war: Kansas prevailed in a bidding war for the plant, which will be the company’s second in the United States to make specialized batteries for electric vehicles. The first plant, in Sparks, Nev., produces 5 million batteries a day, according to Kazuo Tadanobu, chief executive officer of Panasonic Energy Co. Ltd.
- To beat its main rival, Oklahoma, Kansas lawmakers approved tax incentives estimated at $829 million from the state, the largest incentive deal in the state’s 161-year history, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce. In addition, Johnson County will kick in $7.5 million for road improvements and $7.5 million for a new fire station in the area with specialized capabilities for handling battery fires. De Soto has set up a tax increment financing plan worth $202 million and the Kansas Department of Transportation will add another $26 million for roads.
- Commitments to De Soto and the greater KC metro: The incentives were controversial at first, in part because of early secrecy around the name of the company involved. But the commerce department said the plant will generate an additional 4,000 indirect jobs and 16,500 construction jobs on a project that will take about two years to build.
- In addition, the company has a minimum 15-year commitment to stay in Kansas and must meet a number of performance metrics.
- Toland added that Kansas officials set themselves apart in the “neck-and-neck” battle with Oklahoma for the development in one other way – by writing and recording a song inspired by Panasonic’s seven “guiding principles.” Written by Toland assistant Ryan Wills, it was submitted with the reams of other material, he said.
- “This type of approach, writing a song, is certainly not traditional for economic developers but it exemplifies the culture and the spirit of the Kelly administration,” he said.
He and some other speakers said the plant will be an important draw for students who study the sciences.
“We want to keep our kids in Kansas,” Toland said.
Key quote: “Panasonic doesn’t represent the end of our economic development, far from it,” said Gov. Laura Kelly. “We are just getting started.
“This project will be transformative for De Soto, the region and the entire state of Kansas,” she said, making the state a global leader in electric vehicle battery production and attracting thousands of new jobs.
After thanking lawmakers, corporate leaders and state officials for their efforts, she said, “Around here I am known as the education governor but there’s a pretty good case to be made that I’m the jobs governor too,” she said.
Community leaders and Panasonic representatives hailed the development as an example of Panasonic’s good will as well as non partisanship.
The event was attended by six county commissioners including County Chairman Ed Eilert, Sheriff Calvin Hayden, and school and city officials in De Soto. Rick Walker, mayor of De Soto, said, “We look forward to partnering with you, supporting your efforts to move us all toward a brighter, more sustainable future.”
The project also addresses a long-held desire to put the Sunflower land to use. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 15.5-square-mile site was home to the largest ammunition plant in the world. It closed in 1993, but has been awaiting environmental remediation before it can be fully occupied again.
What’s next for the site?
With progress on contamination partially complete, the city of De Soto has annexed over 6,000 acres for development.
Battery production is expected to begin in March, 2025. In the meantime, Johnson County Community College is planning to help teach trades skills to future workers at the site.
Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at email@example.com.