Local Politics: Intel deal will certainly change New Albany and Ohio, but questions remain

Politicians still have plenty to answer about the deal that landed the computer giant in Central Ohio and how it will impact the region moving forward

Craig Calcaterra
People were in attendance during a live televised announcement discussing how Intel will be investing 20 billion dollars building two computer chip factories in Jersey Township, in Licking County, at the Midland Theatre in Newark, Ohio on January 21, 2022. Local and state politicians, as well as Intel personnel, were in attendance for the historic announcement.

Around 30 years ago, when Les Wexner announced his plans for New Albany, he was quoted as saying that if the current residents were to leave and come back in 20 years, they wouldn’t recognize the place. And he was right. A forest became a country club. Some orchards and farmland became fancy neighborhoods. And now, instead of corn and soybeans, New Albany is where the overprivileged offspring of bankers, insurance executives and lawyers are grown. I know this because I have lived in New Albany for 17 years, and I've been growing my own overprivileged kids here for about that long. Say what you want about the visionaries who wanted to transform New Albany — and I sure have — but they kept their promises.

On Friday, the world learned that New Albany is about to be transformed again. This time because Intel is committing $20 billion, for starters, to build a semiconductor manufacturing mega-site here. Get a load of what Intel's CEO Pat Gelsinger told Time about the project and see if it sounds familiar:

When asked: will today’s New Albany residents recognize their small-town in what he sees for the future, Gelsinger replied: “New Albany today versus the high-tech mega manufacturing center of the heartland in five years?” he said. “Yea, it’s going to be unrecognizable.”

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While I am usually skeptical of the claims politicians and business leaders make regarding the impact of public/private development projects — they almost always oversell it — in this case, I tend to believe the Intel CEO.

One need only look at everywhere else Intel has built chip plants, be it in Arizona, Oregon or New Mexico, to see how big a deal it all was. New Albany — and the few thousand acres of Licking County it is annexing for the new Intel plant — will soon undergo massive change as a result of this project. Indeed, the scope of it all is so large and the size of the investment so great, it's going to substantially affect the entire region. A region Gelsinger referred to in that Time interview as the newly formed "Silicon Heartland." (I, personally, wish he would've gone with the far superior "Silicorn Valley," but I'll let it go because I am certainly picking up what he's laying down.)

That's the private side. What about the public side of this massive investment? As far as that goes, we're hearing far less. Sure, Ohio politicians are taking a big victory lap over all of this — Rep. Troy Balderson said last week, "I want to do backflips up here and run around, start dancing" — but public officials have not been particularly forthcoming about what they've promised Intel in exchange for the company coming here.

We do know that the state plans to spend more than $1 billion on infrastructure, but beyond a reference to widening State Route 161, they have yet to provide the details. They have also thus far refused to say what sorts of tax credits and other incentives Ohio has promised the computer chip giant. One can surmise that Intel will benefit from a new state law that allows for 30-year "mega project" tax credits as opposed to the standard 15-year credits, but what else are they getting and how much will we be paying for it?

It's also worth noting that chip plants take a massive amount of water to operate. Where is the water coming from and who's paying to get it to western Licking County? Also, while chip manufacturing is usually portrayed as "clean" manufacturing, the process requires a ton of dangerous chemicals, and neighbors of existing Intel plants have complained about air quality issues. Is Intel getting regulatory breaks here? Will people living near the plant be negatively impacted?

While we're asking questions, is it rude to ask for some sort of realistic projection of what the true economic impact of this new facility will be? I'll grant that it'll be pretty big, but the sorts of claims being thrown around in the wake of last week's announcement (Tens of thousands of jobs, both in and around the plant! Another potential $100 billion investment from Intel over the coming years!) seem decidedly optimistic. 

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said on Friday that the project will provide "a good return on Ohio’s investment," and that it represents "a tide that lifts all boats," as it will create an entire new industry sector of semiconductor manufacturing and related suppliers around the state. Will there be any accountability for such claims? Maybe that's a lot to ask, but given Ohio's recent track record when it comes to giving stuff to private companies — and given a multi-billion debacle on a project in Wisconsin that was once talked about in much the same terms that this one is being talked about now — it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask for fewer backflips and more benchmarks.

I don't mean to be a party pooper here. Ohio has bled manufacturing jobs for a couple of decades now, and the state has lagged behind a lot of other places when it comes to either public and/or private investment in emerging industries and the technology sector. In light of that, the building of a giant semiconductor plant is a big deal. It's absolutely great news for Central Ohio and for the state as a whole. But the announcement of Intel coming to New Albany and the big party everyone had last week was just the beginning. Now comes the part when our government has to govern. When it tells us everything we need to know about its relationship to the area's newest resident, how it lured them here and how it plans to treat it — and the rest of us — now that it's here.  

As anyone who has been around New Albany for a few decades can tell you, transforming a place can be pretty messy business. Not everyone was happy with the way it was transformed the first time. Maybe it's worth paying closer attention the second time around.