Exiled by Intel: Money, Uncertainty and Complicated Feelings in Licking County
The Intel deal brings a bitter truth to Johnstown residents: "Progress" is one heck of a bulldozer.
Ray and Vicki Rusmisel never imagined just how quickly the homestead they had built over 36 years could be obliterated.
The couple, now retired from their jobs as a glazier and a clerical worker, raised their three children in a century-old farmhouse on Jug Street in Jersey Township that they bought for $76,000 at a sheriff’s sale in 1986. Both from farming families, they liked the area’s rural quality. The house, set on 5 acres, was distressed and vacant when they got it, but they remodeled and fixed it up. A year later, when an adjoining, landlocked parcel of 32 acres came up for auction, they purchased that as well for another $30,000. Over the decades that followed, the Rusmisels created “our own piece of heaven.” They put in a half-acre pond that they stocked with catfish, bluegill, bullfrogs and more. Ray built a playhouse for the children and grandkids to use, and the couple planted a wide variety of nut- and fruit-bearing trees and enjoyed the orioles, finches and bluebirds that nested there each spring.
But at 69 and 61, the Rusmisels knew that an old, three-story home with sloping floors wasn’t going to suit them forever. They were already beginning to scout for a single-story house for their next phase of life when the New Albany Co. came knocking last summer. It wasn’t a total surprise; New Albany’s rapidly expanding business park abutted the rear of their long, flag-shaped property, and the development company had purchased a chunk of the Rusmisels’ land in 2015 for Innovation Way and another 10 acres in the spring of 2021. Now they wanted the rest, house and all.
Like most of the world, the Rusmisels hadn’t yet heard that a multinational corporation was planning to build two mega-factories in the neighborhood—that would remain a secret for another five months—but they’d seen the pace of local sales to the New Albany Co. increase substantially in recent months. Neighbors were getting good money for their homes and land. They did their research and struck a lucrative deal: $1.23 million for the house and the remaining 21.6 acres.
The money was enough to buy them a significant upgrade: a rambling, 3,990-square-foot home on 32 acres in Sunbury with mature woods, a horse stable and riding arena, fenced pastures, a guest house with its own garage and a gourmet kitchen with a Sub-Zero refrigerator and two dishwashers. “STUNNING property with custom French country designed one story home,” screams the listing on Zillow. “Impeccably maintained.” Sale price: $1.11 million.
A soft landing, you might say.
But their feelings are complicated. Don’t misunderstand: The Rusmisels are more than happy with their new home. “I wanted a barn; I got two,” Ray comments. But they grieved when they went back to Jug Street on a rainy day in early April to watch from the car as an enormous excavator punched through the upper-story windows of their family homestead, then toppled the 100-year-old chimney. The Rusmisels had held out hope that New Albany would retain part of their property as a 5-acre park, but no such luck. Most everything is being razed.
The couple wrote an article describing the gradual sale and clearing of their property for the April 2022 issue of ONGA News & Views, the newsletter of the Ohio Nut Growers Association, of which Ray is vice president and Vicki is treasurer. “Within months, the 15 acres of woods was cut and removed, dozed for a 500,000-square-foot warehouse,” they wrote. “Then the 57 white oaks were cut down, heartnuts, chestnuts, walnut. It was heart-wrenching.” The headline of the article was, “We’re Being Erased.”
Intel announces $20 billion investment into computer chip manufacturing
“The Buckeye State,” intoned the announcer during a promo video shown at Newark’s Midland Theatre. “Home of eight U. S. presidents, pioneers of space exploration and farmers of expansive land and rich soil, ripe for growth—including this spot, where an inspired project is about to begin.” At the Jan. 21 VIP gathering, Gov. Mike DeWine and Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger revealed the long-rumored project—the multinational tech company’s plan to build a manufacturing facility east of Columbus. As the video continued, pounding rock music swelled and images of farmland gave way to footage of factory production. “Ohio manufactures the future,” the announcer proclaimed. “Ohio—you were built for this.”
The announcement detailed a project of mind-boggling scope: the largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world by revenue would invest $20 billion to build two factories, called “fabs,” in a sleepy, farm-and-country-living area of Jersey Township in Licking County. When open in 2025, the plants would employ 3,000 people at wages averaging $135,000 a year plus benefits. The three-year building phase would create 7,000 construction jobs, and the operation would attract an additional 10,000 indirect jobs to the area.
If Congress offered support, the Intel team said, they had plans to add six more fabs to the campus, for a total investment of $100 billion. That would build on the foundation already laid in Licking County, created over the course of eight months of competition and secret negotiations among state officials, the New Albany Co. and Intel.
But the project didn’t come out of nowhere. The surrounding territory has long been groomed for commercial and industrial development by the New Albany Co., founded in 1987 by Les Wexner and his friend Jack Kessler. The plan was not only to create an upscale village but also to lay the table for economic growth, and the New Albany Co. today promotes itself as offering “technology- and shovel-ready” sites for commercial development. To find land for those projects, the city of New Albany has been annexing swaths of Jersey Township since 2002.
Today, New Albany’s 6,000-acre International Business Park stretches along Route 161 from New Albany Road to Mink Street. Companies that have located data centers and other facilities there include, to name a few, Amazon, Google, Amgen, Aetna, Nationwide and Facebook parent company Meta, which in April announced that it would add 1 million square feet to its existing facility, bringing its investment in the area to $1.5 billion. The business park represents a total of 20,000 jobs.
Still, these projects are dwarfed by the behemoth that is coming. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger boasted on Jan. 21 that within a decade, Intel Ohio could be the largest semiconductor manufacturing site in the world. He referred to it as a “mini-city.”
To secure the deal, Ohio officials offered Intel $1.9 billion in cash, infrastructure improvements and promised tax breaks, according to a report from Policy Matters Ohio, plus $150 million from JobsOhio and local property tax abatements. And to secure the site, New Albany in early May annexed 1,689 acres of Jersey Township—including 900 acres for Intel—and the city council approved a zoning change from agricultural to a new classification: Technology Manufacturing District. The New Albany Co. has been buying properties in the area since at least last summer.
The semiconductor chips may be tiny, but the effort and resources required to manufacture them is enormous. In Chandler, Arizona, where Intel is about to add two similar fabs to expand an existing operation, the construction will require the removal of 890,000 cubic yards of dirt, The New York Times reports, which will be carted away at a rate of one dump truck per minute. The foundations will require 100,000 tons of steel.
If the New Albany site is fully built out, the plants could cover as much space as 30 football fields, Intel vice president Keyvan Esfarjani said at the January announcement.
“If there’s a concrete truck in the state of Ohio that’s not working for me next year, I want to know about it,” Gelsinger joked.
Intel’s promised investment in Licking County is significant not only for the region and the state but for the U.S., which has lagged behind South Korea and Taiwan in chip manufacturing—leaving U.S. manufacturers of chip-dependent goods, from iPhones to cars, vulnerable to geopolitical and COVID-related supply chain issues. The project is so significant, in fact, that President Biden dedicated several minutes of his March 1 State of the Union address to touting the plan as a huge victory for the nation.
“If you travel 20 miles east of Columbus, Ohio, you’ll find 1,000 empty acres of land,” Biden said. “It won’t look like much, but if you stop and look closely, you’ll see a ‘field of dreams,’ the ground on which America’s future will be built.”
What's lost in the name of progress?
While they got a big round of applause in Washington and in the Ohio Statehouse, Biden’s words didn’t land well with folks in Jersey Township. There are 75 homes within the Intel site, New Albany officials have said, and countless more that stand in the path of road and infrastructure improvements the project will require.
Even folks who may benefit from the company’s arrival would like the world to pause and appreciate what is being lost.
“When the president of the United States refers to your property as empty land, it’s hard to not take that personally,” says Tiffany Hollis, owner of the Dashing Diner Uptown, a bustling eatery in downtown Johnstown, a couple of miles from the Intel site. Hollis, 44, whose grandparents came to the area in 1972, is a member of the Johnstown Historical Society and comes to an interview carrying a rare copy of “A Line A Day,” the diary of William Ashbrook, her husband’s great-grandfather and the founder of the Johnstown Independent in 1884. She grows emotional as she talks about the families who have been in the area for generations and who will now scatter, as well as about the old homes and trees that are coming down. When she attended a meeting between Intel officials and local residents, she says, “The only note I wrote down was, ‘all change, no preservation.’”
Public officials in Johnstown, a city of 5,182 souls (according to the 2020 census) with its Main Street located just a couple of miles from the Intel site, are bullish on the project. “It’s the best of all worlds, as far as I’m concerned,” says Chip Dutcher, the mayor. Dutcher grew up in the area and returned seven years ago after spending 40 years in the Washington, D.C., area. He recently toured Intel’s facility in Chandler, Arizona, and liked what he saw. Million-dollar homes located directly across the street from factories, with no apparent friction. “It was quite a sight.” He was pleased with what he was told about the company’s environmental responsibility and community engagement.
The plant will bring Johnstown an opportunity to fix some of its problems, he says, such as overburdened roads—and maybe to combat the forces that drove him from the area after college, nearly 50 years ago. “I’m most excited for the young people growing up in this city. They’ll have the opportunity of a lifetime that we never had.”
The most common word used to describe the project by its boosters is “transformational.” But some locals have other words to describe it. Hollis calls it a “tsunami.” Errich Taylor, who started a Facebook group for residents to discuss the project (current membership: 2,600), hears it all. “People call themselves ‘collateral damage’ with the Intel bomb going off,” he says.
With details of the plan emerging in dribs and drabs, residents get information and rumors from neighbors at coffee shops and grocery stores and on social media. They pore over Zillow, the New Albany Co. website and the county treasurer’s website, trying to figure out what Intel could mean for them. Many of those who sold their properties to the New Albany Co. representatives signed nondisclosure agreements, and the secrecy adds to the anxiety in the community. Within the annexation area, roads are lined with zoning change notices and “for sale” signs. Some have sold their homes for life-changing sums; some are waiting, betting they’ll get more money down the road; others are wondering if they sold too cheap; still others wonder if they’ll be stuck in a landscape forever changed.
And then there are the rumors: Johnstown’s going to be eliminated and renamed East New Albany. Intel’s going to build an airport (which would be surprising, given the proximity of CMH and Rickenbacker, not to mention the company’s eagerness to avoid chip-damaging ground vibrations).
At a recent meeting of the New Albany Planning Commission, homeowners from Wagoner Farms, a 34-home subdivision just outside the Intel property, peppered officials with questions. Unlike many of their neighbors, these owners of homes valued at $300,000 to $500,00 on 2-acre lots have not been asked to sell—in this environment, acreage is more valuable than buildings. They worry they will be stuck with expensive homes where they don’t want to live. Who will buy a fancy house sandwiched between a factory and a business park?
And people are angry about the secrecy with which the plan was developed. One couple who made a deal last fall to sell their home to MCVGCM Holdings—a New Albany Co. holding company set up for the Intel properties—learned from Zillow that a house four driveways down, the same size as theirs and with similar acreage, was also purchased by MCVGCM Holdings, at around the same time, for twice what they got. With more transparency, they think they would have negotiated a better deal.
Tax increases due to rising property values are a worry for some. And there are environmental concerns rippling through the community. Seana Martin Hartman lives a good 5 miles from the Intel site, but she’s been studying the experiences of other communities where Intel has built plants. She read a 2005 book written by a resident of Coralles, New Mexico, where Intel built a fab in 1992. “Boiling Frogs: Intel vs. the Village” charges that the company polluted the air and water in surrounding towns. Hartman, who gets her water, like many area residents, from a well, is worried about the effects of the water-intensive chipmaking operation. “I’m livid,” she says. “It gives me anxiety—I just want to cry.”
Intel claims their plants will be built and operate with a focus on sustainability, energy and zero waste, and that most or all of the water they use will be recycled. Asked about the secrecy surrounding the project, New Albany Co. representatives point out that until a deal was struck—Christmas Day, according to Gov. DeWine—to name the company they were seeking to attract would have risked losing the project.
“We recognize that change can be difficult,” New Albany Co. development director Tom Rubey said in an email statement. “While there are elements that are still coming into focus, thoughtful collaboration and preparation is underway to prepare for thousands of new manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as new infrastructure in and around the Intel location.”
Ryan Squire, director of communications for JobsOhio, the state's private economic development agency that brokered the deal, says it’s hard to overestimate what was at stake. “It’s a well-documented knock on Ohio’s economy that too many people are leaving,” he says. “We’re excited to reverse that trend, not only for today but for generations to come.
“Does that mean there are going to be growing pains? Absolutely. … I’ve heard the stories about, you know, this farm has been in our family for generations. Well, two or three generations from now, those same families will be talking about how those farms turned into this opportunity for Ohio and made that happen for the state.”
On the north side of Jug Street, near the corner of Mink, Jennifer and David Waldron haven’t yet gotten their chance to contribute to that opportunity. They live on 6.4 acres in a house that Jennifer purchased in 2005, three years before getting married. They’ve put on an addition; finished the basement; added three patios, a gazebo, a hot tub and an aboveground pool; improved the barn and added hundreds of feet of fencing to create a safe space for their 10-year-old triplets and two horses. They have not received an offer from the New Albany Co. because their property is situated in a sort of neverland sandwiched between the New Albany business park and the Intel acreage. They remain part of Jersey Township.
“I figure New Albany will get to us some day,” says David. Meanwhile, demolition is going on all around them, and his commute time to work at Abercrombie & Fitch has doubled, thanks to construction on Jug and Beech. Jennifer went to a New Albany Planning Commission hearing in early April in search of answers.
“Do I fix the air conditioner, or do I replace the air conditioner?” she asked the commissioners. “I’m a very logical person. I know the train is coming—I just need to know when I need to get off. And I don’t want to get run over.”
A while back, David’s parents, now in their 80s, moved from Cincinnati to Westerville to be close to their grandchildren. Now, David and Jennifer wonder whether their house will bring enough for them to afford a property that will accommodate their horses and still be within striking distance of the grandparents.
“It will be expensive!” Jennifer says.
At the planning commission meeting, Jennifer Chrysler, New Albany’s director of community development, told the Waldrons and other homeowners to band together to create something of value to Intel. “Aggregate your properties,” she said. “You have opportunities to have very creative discussions on your own.” But to the Waldrons, such a proposition seems unlikely. On one side, their neighbor has put his home on the market for what they view as an unrealistic price. On the other side, their neighbors hung a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag at the end of their driveway following the Intel announcement.
Most of all, the thought of building or renovating anew is wearying. “At this point in our lives, I don’t really want the work to start over,” Jennifer Waldron says.
Back in downtown Johnstown, Tiffany Hollis spends her days worrying and wondering what the future will bring to the town she loves.
She and her husband started the Dashing Diner Uptown as a food truck, and six years ago sold their house to purchase a building on Johnstown’s historic Main Street that has been in service as a restaurant for over 100 years. The traditional diner is filled with nostalgic memorabilia, much of it donated by longtime patrons. Earlier this year, the couple added an event space next door. Their business could prosper as a result of the influx of construction workers, then plant workers, then new residents Intel will bring. But Hollis is also worried that she could lose the restaurant to a road-widening project—or a change in the character of downtown—or a bunch of new fast-food restaurants rumored to be heading for the area. One day she looked outside to see a stranger measuring her building—she doesn’t know why, and she was too anxious to ask.
The combination of emotions is excruciating. “It’s heartbreaking and terrifying and exciting and all of those things,” she says. But as she watches her 84-year-old grandmother pack up to move out of the house she built with her husband in 1972, Hollis mostly feels sad. Generations of her family’s babies were bathed in the kitchen sink of that house. It’s been a complicated challenge for the family, trying to get her grandmother into a new home where she can live with her son close by, as she does now. “They’re giving up so much,” Hollis says. “Yes, they were compensated, but would they have chosen that compensation? Or would they have chosen to just keep living their life the way they were?”
For Hollis, the answer is clear: The old way was better. For others, change will bring opportunity—perhaps even riches. As for the Rusmisels, they took their bluebird houses from Jug Street and installed them at their new home. And what do you know: This spring, two pairs of bluebirds moved in.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect description of JobsOhio's funding sources.