Hyundai's Electric Vehicle and Battery Plants are Transforming Savannah
It’s early spring, and an industrial revolution is taking place on about 3,000 acres of land in Bryan County, Georgia, just a few miles down the road from historic Savannah. What was once a green hegemony of Georgia pines now resembles a scene from a Mad Max movie, a post-apocalyptic mayhem of rubber, steel, dirt, and dust. In just a few short months, most of the site has been bulldozed; the rest won’t hold out long. Near the back of the site, furthest from the highway, workers have dug a retention pond that hits 45 feet deep and covers a massive 200-acre rectangle. Earthmovers race back and forth, picking up soil from one area and dumping it in another, trip after trip, hour after hour, their drivers racking up overtime. From a distance, a cluster of excavators looks practically primal, like a row of dinosaurs hunting. The sheer size of the thing is hard to process. Standing on one side of the perimeter, you can’t see its opposite. There’s only a brown-flecked horizon.
By early 2025 or possibly sooner—remarkably fast for a project of this magnitude—this land will be home to an electric vehicle plant built by Hyundai Motor Company, the South Korean automaker best known for its ultra-reliable (and increasingly stylish) cars. There will also be an electric battery factory here, along with several other auto part suppliers. Though initially expected to manufacture some 300,000 vehicles annually, the plant will have the capacity to produce 500,000. Most of them will be Hyundais, and a substantial number will come from Genesis, which is Hyundai’s luxury division. Some will be Kias, of which Hyundai owns a portion. All of these fully electric vehicles will be sold in North America.
Welcome to the race for the future, a competition for market dominance in an arena where no legacy automaker dominates—Tesla now sells the most electric vehicles in the country—and consumers seem to feel little brand loyalty when leaving their gas engines behind. This plant represents a critical advance in that all-important competition for Hyundai, which sold 6.6 million vehicles in 2022 and is the world’s third-largest automaker.
Despite China’s growth, “the U.S. market is still the largest car market in the world,” says Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Every [auto] company is moving toward electrification, and they need to be located near their largest consumer market. To be manufactured in the U.S. and then sell into the U.S., you’re just cutting out the cost of moving those vehicles.” The Biden administration wants electric vehicles to make up half of U.S. car and truck sales by 2030, and is supporting the industry with consumer tax breaks—so long as the electric car consumers buy is mostly made in America.
The United States is huge for Hyundai. But for the four Georgia counties which partnered to buy and prepare the land for industrial use—Chatham, which includes Savannah, and the less-populated Bryan, Bulloch, and Effingham counties—well, this plant might change everything. Hyundai is investing a $6 billion in the plant and estimates that it will create 8,100 jobs paying about $56,000 a year on average.
Hyundai suppliers will bring in several billion more investment dollars and thousands more jobs. “For the residents in Savannah and the region, the realization is just settling in of how big a deal this is,” says Angela Hendrix, senior vice president of marketing at the Savannah Economic Development Authority. “This is a transformative project.”
Many Americans think of Savannah as a small, charming, Southern city, a wonderful place to visit, and that’s all true. But beyond Savannah’s famous squares, there is more industry than most visitors realize: farm equipment manufacturer JCB, private aviation firm Gulfstream, and the Port of Savannah, the third-largest port in the country in terms of container volume. Hyundai’s arrival will boost Savannah to another level, redefining the city’s identity and expanding the realm of its ambitions. “It’s like winning ten Super Bowls,” says Trip Tollison, the president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA).
But it couldn’t have happened if all four of the counties hadn’t partnered with each other. That partnership began with Bryan County, the location of what everyone involved calls the “megasite.” Back in 2014, Volvo strongly considered putting a $500 million plant on then privately owned 2,000 acres but ultimately chose Berklee County in South Carolina.
“We learned that in order to really be competitive on a project like that, we needed to own and control the property, and we did not,” says Anna Chafin, CEO of the Development Authority of Bryan County. But Bryan County couldn’t afford to buy the megasite on its own, so Chafin forged a partnership with the economic development offices of the three neighboring counties—a “joint development authority.” The idea made more sense than to have neighboring counties compete against each other, Tollison says. “Economic development is a regional activity. Employers don’t care about county lines. They care that the workforce is good and shows up on time.”
With the strong (and financial) support of Georgia governor Brian Kemp and state economic officials, in 2021, the JDA purchased the site. (Another 1,000 acres were added later. They prepped it for water, sewer, and power. They also conducted the required environmental assessments. These are things that, if not done beforehand, could slow a buyer down for years. On January 6, 2022, Hyundai came calling; the JDA received an RFI (request for information) for a large industrial site.
The JDA didn’t know who the potential manufacturer was; the request came from the consulting firm KPMG. In short order, on January 22nd, KPMG brought its still anonymous clients to tour the site. When JDA officials showed up at a private airport to greet them, they spotted a telling detail: One of the visitors was toting a backpack with a Hyundai logo. “I sort of gathered everybody together and said, ‘Look at the backpack…’,” says Tollison.
It belonged to a man named José Muñoz, who is originally from Spain but is now president and CEO of Hyundai and Genesis Motor North America. Muñoz, who’d heard rumors that other companies were already hovering over the site, wanted the JDA to know that he represented a heavyweight—a global firm with enormous financial resources. “So I decided to show the logo on my backpack ‘by accident,’” Muñoz says now, laughing.
Already fast, the process only sped up. “All the questions about the site that you would consider the appropriate ones, [the JDA] had this all done. It was like a turnkey project.” The site had other advantages, Muñoz says. It enjoyed a good climate, generally hurricane-free and relatively unaffected by global warming. It was close to the Port, highways, and railroads. Thanks in part to workforce training programs developed by Gulfstream, Savannah had a supply of trained labor, even if Hyundai might have found cheaper labor in other states.
“We as a company are not interested in cheap labor,” Muñoz says. “We are interested in qualified labor.” The nearby presence of Georgia Tech-Savannah also helped, and so did the appeal of Savannah; Muñoz points out that none of the company executives he’s asked to move there have said no. And, as is standard procedure for such deals, the state offered Hyundai about $1.8 billion in tax breaks and other incentives.
“We got a good incentive package,” Muñoz admits. “We could have gotten a bigger incentive package somewhere else.” What mattered more, he says, when you’re building a plant meant to operate for decades is the people you’re partnering with. “This almost like a marriage,” he explains. “You know there are going to be issues, and you have to deal with them, so you have to trust all the parties.” The JDA representatives and the state officials worked so closely together, Muñoz said, he sometimes couldn’t tell which was which. “This gave us a lot of confidence.
At 10:00 P.M. on April 25th, Chafin and Tollison were working in the SEDA offices when they got an email—a signed letter of intent from Hyundai. They and their colleagues went to the roof of the building and shook up a bottle of champagne. The next morning, they went back to work. Construction began in October. Cars are expected to roll off the production lines in Q1 2025.
The arrival of a global manufacturer and billions of dollars in a small Southern city brings change, of course, more change than anyone in the region can predict. Economic growth, globalization, a reshaped image, the cultural impact of several hundred Korean executives expected to relocate to the area… Savannah hasn’t exactly been sleepy for 20 or 30 years now, but it’s about to get hyper-caffeinated. Says Tollison, “The stakes are so high in the electric vehicle industry and the fact that Hyundai, one of the largest vehicle manufacturers in the world, decided to put their facility here… There are going to be a lot of eyes on this city.”