Vallejo hopes to plug into the electric car market
If you’re a former Navy town that’s been navigating rough economic seas since your base closed 20 years ago, a high-tech electric car assembly plant may just be the thing you’re looking for to turn your fortunes around.
At least that’s what many Vallejo officials and residents are hoping a proposed Faraday Future electric car plant can be for them.
When the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in the mid-1990s, Vallejo lost its largest employer. Two decades later, enter the Los Angeles-based startup electric car company Faraday Future. The company has entered into exclusive negotiations with the city for the right to build an assembly plant on the northern tip of the old Naval Shipyard.
The North Bay city is hoping to make the switch from a military town to a player in California’s rapidly growing electric car market.
Mare Island is a peninsula located just across the Napa River from Vallejo’s waterfront. There’s nothing on the northern edge of the island now but derelict Navy dormitories and grey graffiti-tagged abandoned warehouses. Broken glass litters the pavement, and weeds sprout up from the rubbish strewn courtyard.
“It looks like what happens when nature starts to take over,” says long-time Vallejo resident Charles Bartlett, glancing at the northern tip of Mare Island where Faraday Future, backed by Chinese investors, is looking to build a 157-acre assembly plant. “We’re looking at everything green growing around it.”
Bartlett thinks the Faraday Future facility could revitalize Mare Island and the local economy.
“The potential is for it not just to create jobs, but high-paying jobs,” he said. “That’s key – because for so long Vallejo has been sort of a service economy. There’s no shortage of fast-food places, restaurants, retail, movie theaters -- and all of those are minimum wage jobs.
When the Navy left, it took hundreds of high-paying middle-income jobs with it. A Department of Defense study at the time estimated a $500 million annual hit to the local economy. In 2008, the city became the first city of its size to declare bankruptcy because of the mortgage crisis and public service pension costs it could no longer afford. City officials and residents have been looking for ways to fill the gap left behind when the Navy left. Bartlett says Faraday Future could have a ripple effect as other businesses grow up around it.
“There’s going to be a network of suppliers that build up around Faraday. Some of them could be far away, but many of them will be local,” said Bartlett.
Faraday Future says the Vallejo facility will include a showroom and test track where people can come to see and test drive the cars, which are now in the concept phase of development. Early concept drawings show a car that resembles a high-performance sports car similar to a Lamborghini, or Bugatti.
In May, the City Council unanimously approved the exclusive bargaining agreement with Faraday Future.
“This could potentially be the biggest thing to happen in Vallejo in many, many years,” said Vallejo City Manager Daniel Keene at a recent City Council meeting.
Keene says Vallejo wants to be at the cutting edge of a fast-growing industry in California.
“We’re very excited that the council is supportive of us moving forward with negotiations with this company. They promise a lot of things that are important to this community, particularly jobs and investment.”
According to Keene, Vallejo residents are also excited about the prospect of an environmentally conscious company.
“We see this as an ideal type of company for Vallejo and the Bay Area because of the green nature of it,” he said. “We’re going to manufacture electric cars here in California. I think it’s pretty easy to say California is the hotbed of where people want to buy and see electric cars.”
The city says it would cost more for the environmental cleanup and infrastructure upgrades needed on the land than what the land is currently worth. Many of the old buildings contain lead paint, asbestos and other materials that the company would have to remote. But Faraday Future spokesman Ezekiel Wheeler says the Bay Area location makes it a bargain.
“Vallejo is of interest to us primarily because of its location in the Bay Area,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler says you can’t beat the Bay Area for technical know-how. And the electric vehicle (EV) industry would benefit from it. Industry observers say Californians make up about half of all registered EV owners nationwide. California once had five car manufacturing plants, now that number is down to one, and that’s the Tesla electric vehicle plant in Fremont. The state has offered numerous incentives for EV drivers, including a $2500 rebate and access to the carpool lane for solo drivers.
“We have offices in Silicon Valley, and utilizing those resources and talent and the EV enthusiasm that follows in the Bay makes it a prime location for us,” Wheeler pointed out.
The company has paid a $200,000 fee for the exclusive right to bargain with the city for use of the land. Wheeler says the company is willing to pay for the development costs on Mare Island -- whatever the cost -- because it’s a win for the company and the city.
“We’re really excited to bring economic development to the city of Vallejo in the form of our monetary investment as well as bringing jobs; really good jobs for the great and capable workforce you find here in Vallejo,” said Wheeler.
Faraday Future would like to compete with Tesla as an electric car maker. Tesla, which operates a vehicle production facility in Fremont and is one of the state’s largest private employers, recently started work on a $1 billion manufacturing facility near Las Vegas. And It hopes to open its Vallejo facility in a couple of years.
Still, some Vallejoans are taking a guardedly optimistic view of the Mare Island proposal. They’re urging the city not to jump on the first offer from the company and to keep its options open for other -- possibly better -- offers which may present themselves.
“They have to analyze how much they’re going to get long term...and the risk of having all their eggs in one basket fail,” says Steve Souza. Souza grew up in Vallejo and owns property in the city. He says the city has considered other Mare Island development proposals, including a casino and a cement plant.
“If it goes in, it’s going to go right into Mare Island where the civilian and military workers used to be and it seems like a good fit to replace those nuclear submarines with electric cars,” said Souza.
Negotiations are expected to continue for the next few months. If approved, Faraday Future says their facility could be completed in two years.