Elkhart County OKs tax break for electric car maker

Job-hungry Elkhart County could become home to three electric vehicle manufacturers if a Norwegian company chooses northern Indiana as the site of a new factory.

The Elkhart County Council gave preliminary approval this week to a 10-year property tax break intended to lure Think North America to the Middlebury area. The company said it also is considering sites in Oregon and Michigan for its first U.S. plant.

Parent company Think Global makes compact, two-door electric passenger cars at a plant in Finland. The company plans for the new factory to produce 2,500 autos per year initially and employ 415 people by 2013.

"It is really one of the first highway-ready, fully functioning electric vehicles," said Tom Kemeny, Think North America’s chief financial officer. "There is no tailpipe. There are no emissions."

The Think City is made with recyclable plastic body panels and can travel more than 100 miles per charge.

"It’s an urban vehicle," Kemeny said. "This isn’t to get from Detroit down to here."

He didn’t specify what the car’s estimated retail price would be but said maintenance and operation costs would be 75 percent lower than those of a gas-powered vehicle.

Wakarusa already is home to two electric vehicle operations.

Navistar International Corp. plans to build all-electric delivery trucks starting next year with help from a $39 million federal grant. Startup Electric Motors Corp. intends to make electric-hybrid drive trains to be installed in various vehicles, starting with a joint venture with Gulf Stream that would make light-duty electric trucks.

Council President John Letherman said that type of development would "put people back to work, put us on the cutting edge of electric car manufacturing."

Elkhart County’s unemployment rate, driven by job cuts at recreational vehicle manufacturers in the reputed RV capital of the world, spiked in March at 18.9 percent but has fallen steadily since, hitting 14.5 percent in November.

According to paperwork filed for the tax abatement, Think would open a plant at a vacant building north of Middlebury. It would invest $24.76 million in new machinery through 2013 and the 415 workers would earn an average of $33,253.

Think would save about 50 percent on property taxes over 10 years, or about $500,000. Kemeny said Think also is pursuing state and federal incentives.

"I think we are further along with Indiana than we are with other states," said Brendan Prebow, a spokesman for Think North America.

"Elkhart County and Middlebury offer a lot in terms of manufacturing," he said. "There is a well-established automotive supply base already. There is a well-established, trained work force and it is centrally located to the U.S."

Privately owned Think was recapitalized last summer, according to The New York Times, and the parent company of Indianapolis-based battery maker EnerDel now owns a 31 percent share. Prebo said that funding already has been earmarked for the planned U.S. plant. EnerDel, which employs 100 people at its headquarters at 8740 Hague Road on the far northeast side of Indianapolis, is planning an $100 million expansion that would create 850 jobs across Indiana by 2012.

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