Four-county metro Atlanta area in spotlight again with Rivian plant

Rivian may build an automotive factory near the Facebook data center in Newton County. (Handout from Facebook)

Credit: Submitted by Facebook

Credit: Submitted by Facebook

Rivian may build an automotive factory near the Facebook data center in Newton County. (Handout from Facebook)

An electric vehicle manufacturing plant could be the latest feather in the cap for economic developers in the Covington area east of Atlanta.

Rivian is in talks to develop a site near the point where Morgan, Newton and Walton counties converge along I-20, representing one of Georgia’s biggest development projects in years, according to people familiar with the matter.

If the EV plant happens, it would be heading to an area that’s already home to several large new developments, any one of which would be considered a major victory for a local community.

The Joint Development Authority (JDA) of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties and individual county development authorities have, in the past six years, lured Takeda, SK Group and Facebook from the pharmaceutical, semiconductor and technology sectors.

This year has been particularly busy. SK said last month it will build a $473 million plant in Covington to make glass parts for computer chips. Facebook plans to invest up to $3.4 billion in data centers at an industrial park near Social Circle, more than triple its initial plans, according to a JDA agreement earlier this year.

The four-county agency’s success is a product of having plenty of undeveloped land suitable for a large industrial development, plus a group of leaders from different jurisdictions who are willing to work together, said Alvin Nash, a board member of the Georgia Economic Developers Association.

In other similar multijurisdictional partnerships, leaders from rival counties often fight amongst each other, he said. That doesn’t appear to have happened here.

“It’s not just the land but the willingness of the communities to work together,” said Nash, a private consultant who’s not involved in the Rivian project.

The four counties had a combined estimated population in 2020 of about 244,300, according to the U.S. Census. Newton is the largest with about 113,300 residents.

Rivian did not respond to requests for comment. Last week, the Irvine, California-based company said in a statement that it’s “in discussions with multiple locations as part of a competitive process for siting a second manufacturing facility.”

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owns a 4.7% stake in Rivian and supplies services to Rivian. Sandy Schwartz, a Cox executive who oversees the AJC, is on Rivian’s board of directors and holds stock personally. He does not take part in the AJC’s coverage of Rivian.

Rivian is likely to have zeroed in on a site along the north side of I-20, between the cities of Covington and Madison, according to economic development experts. That corridor includes several separate parcels zoned for industrial development, according to a site selection database maintained by Georgia Power.

One parcel, a 1,978-acre lot marketed as the “East Atlanta Megasite,” is one of the largest available industrial sites in the state. The site could be expanded with adjacent sites, including some that are privately owned, to create an even-larger industrial property.

“There’s a ton of vacant land out there” that’s prime for industrial development, said David Kahn, a managing analyst at real estate data provider CoStar Group.

Most of the sites, about 45 miles east of Atlanta, are owned by local development authorities. That’s more appealing to companies than having to negotiate a purchase from a private owner, said Anthony Burnett, a senior vice president of site development at brokerage Colliers.

A local development “authority can offer the land for free or for a very low cost and there’s usually already an electric substation and water and sewer there,” said Burnett, who’s not involved in the project.

Andrea Gray, attorney for the JDA of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties, declined to comment. David Thompson, chairman of the Walton County Board of Commissioners, also declined to comment. The chairmen of the Morgan, Newton and Jasper County commissions did not respond to requests for comment.

One large site is owned by Alan Verner, the retired chairman of the JDA of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties. Verner previously operated his family’s farm on the acreage. He did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The industrially zoned sites have some logistical advantages. All have direct access to I-20 and are about 33 miles east of I-285 in metro Atlanta.

The sites also have important rail connections, including a link to Commerce, where SK Battery America is building a $2.6 billion plant. Rivian plans to purchase EV batteries from SK.

A branch railroad line connects Commerce to two separate main freight rail lines, according to OpenRailwayMap. The branch line crosses I-85 about one mile southwest of the SK plant. The Social Circle industrial properties have a direct connection to a CSX rail line.

The rail lines have different owners but railroad companies frequently share trackage rights, said Tom Crosson, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern.