Mon, Jul 09, 2018 - Page 8 News List

A city getting ‘Tesla’d’

Tesla’s battery factory brought high-paid tech jobs to Nevada — but is soaking up huge tax breaks that critics say have seriously depleted public services

By Rory Carroll  /  The Guardian, SPARKS, NEVADA

The Tesla Gigafactory is shown under construction outside Reno, Nevada May, 2015.

Photo: Reuters

When Nevada enticed Tesla to set up a gargantuan battery factory in the desert, America’s gambling capital seemed to have hit the jackpot.

The factory would have a state-of-the art 510,967 sq meter facility — reputedly the world’s biggest building by footprint — and promised to generate tens of thousands of jobs, as well as investment worth US$100 billion.

Cities around the so-called Gigafactory in northern Nevada lined up to reap the bonanza. No longer dusty, provincial versions of Las Vegas, these municipalities would become innovative makers of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and partners in Elon Musk’s vision of a clean-energy revolution. That was the pitch.

IMPOVERISHED RESIDENTS

These days many residents in Sparks — a sunbaked, low-rise city of 100,000 people located 20 miles from the factory — express humbler dreams: food, shelter, health care.

“I’m not used to living this way,” said Katherine Pope, 69, a retired administrator who rents a small motel room and relies on food donations. “I can’t afford to move. Many times I can’t afford meat.”

Another impoverished resident, a 70-year-old unemployed transcriptionist with a thyroid condition, faces a recurring dilemma.

“Food or medicine, it’s one or the other.”

A rent increase may soon compel another grim choice: sleep in her battered 1997 Saturn or in a homeless shelter.

Down by the Truckee river you find others who feel cast out — families who have moved into trailer parks, which are packed to capacity, and people sleeping rough.

“A year ago I was the caretaker of an apartment building and my wife was a caregiver. Then I lost my job. We couldn’t afford to rent anywhere so now we live here,” said Kevin McCullough, 48, who like his partner, Pixie, was sunburned from outdoor living. Home is a tent by riverbank reeds.

Such testimony conflicts with the official narrative that Sparks is booming — awash with jobs, money and newcomers. But you hear it from a largely hidden underclass which is paying a price for the boom. Some have a term for it: “Tesla’d.”

DEPLETED RESOURCES

One complaint is that tax credits given to Tesla — and to a lesser extent other tech companies — deplete public services, resulting in potholed roads, overcrowded schools and insufficient affordable housing.

The other is that the tech worker influx has sent rents rocketing, tipping residents on fixed incomes, especially seniors, into penury.

That was not the pitch in 2014 when Nevada beat rival bids from California and New Mexico to land the Gigafactory. It did so with exemptions from sales-and-use, property and general business taxes for 10 to 20 years, adding up to an estimated and unprecedented US$1.4 billion. The previous record, to lure an Apple server farm, was US$88 million.

Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor, hailed the deal as transformative for a region still limping from the great recession.

Today the factory sits behind a fenced swath of desert known as the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), which also hosts Google, Switch and Panasonic, among others, and bills itself the world’s biggest industrial park.

Tesla’s “alien dreadnought” — Musk’s words — dominates. It is unfinished but already produces around 3,000 battery packs per week for Tesla’s Model 3 sedan. Thousands of workers and contractors have moved to Sparks and nearby communities, a boon for local hotels, landlords, builders, plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers and other service providers.

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