Electric school buses are still a go at 30 Industrial Way in South Charleston, but Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting did not signify an immediate bus flurry.
GreenPower Motor Co. President Brendan Riley clarified that buses will not be flying off an assembly line tomorrow.
“We just took possession of the building,” Riley said.
He said much work remains to be done, including constructing the assembly line, training workers, making sure the line is ready for production and any other concern that confronts a start-up location.
Riley estimated that it might be three months before the first bus is assembled. That first bus will be the prototype, he said, and will be the start of more regular production.
That estimation is not new or unexpected. In July, GreenPower spokesman Mark Nestlen laid out the basics — the company would take possession of the Motor City Industrial building sometime in August; employ a few dozen people by the end of the year, with an expected 200 by the end of 2023; and produce about 50 buses a month by the end of 2023. The company has promised 900 jobs eventually.
Lest anyone think the longer-range pace is rain on a parade, Mother Nature took care of that Tuesday morning shortly before 10 a.m. It poured, then cleared up. The rain did not dampen the turnout, as at least 200 people sheltered under a vinyl tent. The George Washington High School band offered intermittent music.
Gov. Jim Justice attended but did not stay long. He said a close family friend had died. Before he left, he “drove” GreenPower’s full-size BEAST (battery electric automotive school transportation) bus maybe 20 yards, testing the sufficiently loud horn twice.
West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, livened up the crowd. Blair, waving a cane at times to emphasize his points, said the expected 900 jobs is proof of the state’s diversifying economy and will help keep younger people from leaving. Blair had undergone a recent medical procedure, another speaker said, explaining the cane.
As for keeping young people here, Blair said, “They make babies! They fall in love and make babies! I know everybody’s laughing, but the math works!”
A significant contingent of politicians showed up, just as they did last week, when the city of Charleston and Kanawha County announced a partnership to convert part of the Town Center mall property into a 254,000-square-foot sports complex.
When it came time for the actual ribbon-cutting, South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens did the honors, with supersized scissors. Mullens kicked off the speaker list, in fact, calling the quest to bring GreenPower here a “roller-coaster ride” involving plenty of attorneys, property owners and other technicalities.
A property dispute, in fact, delayed acquiring the building. GreenPower had hoped to be in the building near Memorial Day.
Still, its timeline has been fairly rapid. West Virginia economic officials got in the game when Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael made red-eye flights a little more than a year ago to and from California. GreenPower’s main plant is in Porterville, California. It is headquartered in Vancouver, Canada.
Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, another speaker Tuesday, recalled giving Mullens a call and being told the assembly plant is a real thing. He said Mullens worked especially hard.
“The reason we’re able to cut this ribbon today is Mayor Frank Mullens,” said Salango.
GreenPower’s Riley mispronounced Salango’s name, calling him “Salgado.” Smiling when he took the stage, Salango said, “I’ve been called worse.”
The GreenPower president could be forgiven. A new father already sleep deprived, he flew from California to Cincinnati on Monday. He arrived after midnight and traveled by car the rest of the way.
He said having local workers assemble the buses will improve quality.
“When the crew is assembling, building the vehicles knowing their own children will be riding the vehicle, it does help with the assembly, the manufacture,” he said.
Riley said he has been impressed by the community’s “welcoming nature.”
“We’re incredibly excited to be here,” he said.
The site is situated near the South Charleston Industrial Park — formerly the South Charleston Ordnance Center — and Park Place, a 7-years-in-the-works shopping center. GreenPower will assemble buses in the former Motor City Industrial building.
As for Park Place, it presently has only two tenants it is willing to announce, Chick-Fil-A and Menard’s, Mullens said through a spokeswoman Tuesday. Chick-Fil-A held a groundbreaking earlier this week.
Adding to the electric bus story is a national rebate program from the Biden administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. School districts may ask for up to 25 new buses, but grants are made as part of a lottery system. If a school system is lucky, it may turn in used diesel buses — normally worth only a few thousand dollars — and receive $375,000 back, which is the approximate cost of a full-size GreenPower BEAST. Rebates are available up to $285,000 for the Type A Nano BEAST, the smaller version.
The first $500 million in grant funding is available now.
Riley said there presently are no restrictions on where parts may come from to qualify for rebates and other incentives, although Republicans in Congress are pushing for it.
Justice made the GreenPower announcement in January, during the most recent legislative session. The state committed to purchasing a minimum of $15 million of GreenPower vehicles. It will provide up to $3.5 million in employee incentive payments for up to 900 jobs GreenPower creates.
BridgeValley Community and Technical College is expected to provide training for workers.