As world's largest EV battery manufacturing site takes shape, historic Glendale hopes to retain small town identity
Glendale, Ky., with its rolling farmland, antique shops, and not a single stoplight, could be the setting from a Hallmark movie.
The quietness is interrupted a few times a day as the main CSX train line from Louisville to Nashville rolls through town. A much bigger disruption is happening a few miles up the road, just off Interstate 65, where the world’s largest electric vehicle battery plant is under construction.
Some local business owners are already seeing the benefit, while others are worried about Glendale keeping its small-town identity.
When you drive north on I-65 toward Louisville, billboards dot the interstate that read, “Proud to be your new neighbor.”
Not every newcomer to town gets a visit from the governor. But when you’re bringing a $5.8 billion dollar investment, Andy Beshear is at your door.
“BlueOval SK, it is nothing short of incredible," Beshear said while touring construction of the BlueOval SK battery park in Hardin County last week.
Once farmland, the 1,500-acre campus will produce electric vehicle batteries for Ford and Lincoln vehicles. Ford and South Korean partner SK On are hiring 5,000 people to work at two plants that will total roughly eight million square feet.
The battery park is located just off the interstate in Glendale, population 2,200. Residents here are used to corn and soybean fields as their neighbors. Nestled between railroad tracks, antique shops, and ice cream parlors, life here is slower. But up the road, Glendale’s newest neighbor is moving in at a fast pace.
While the largest EV battery plant in the world could help change the future of how we drive, but the future is what historic downtown Glendale prides itself on avoiding.
“Because a lot of people come through just trying to get away from all the hustle and bustle everywhere else," said Lisa Hall, owner of Southern Heart and Home, a home decor and clothing boutique.
She’s a member of the Glendale Merchants Association, and Hardin County Judge-Executive Keith Taul has heard their concerns over the new neighbor.
“Some are struggling with it more than others," Taul said. "They know it’s coming, but it’s hard to get your mind around it.”
A consultant’s report projects the two EV battery plants to impact Hardin County to the tune of 22,000 new residents, resulting in the need for 8,800 additional housing units.
For Hall, business at her store has been slow lately, and fears construction around the battery plant could be to blame.
“Right now, it’s just hard to get around," Hall told WKU Public Radio. "Drawing people from I-65, I think it’s harder for them to find out where we’re located due to the construction work because we do get a lot of out-of-state people just stopping through. I do believe once the plant is up and running, I think it will be a good thing for the businesses around here. It’s just getting to that point.”
The railroad is central to the town’s identity, and so is The Whistle Stop. The restaurant is famous for its southern style cuisine featuring hot browns, fried green tomatoes, and homemade pies with mile-high meringue.
General Manager Joshua Rook sees opportunity with the battery plants. While operations won’t begin until 2025, the construction phase has already benefited his business.
“We’ve seen an influx of clients from the plant coming to eat lunch, coming to eat dinner. We're expanding our services into breakfast," Rook explained. "We’ve had lots of meetings from the Ford plant where they’re renting our upstairs area. It’s been, honestly, a blessing for our business.”
Rook estimates restaurant sales are up five to ten percent over last year thanks, in part, to the town’s new corporate neighbor.
“We have had some people new to the area that have moved here just for the plant, so we’ve had some transplants coming to check out The Whistle Stop and give us a try," Rook said. "They’re kinda shocked this little bubble in time is frozen just like it is. It’s really different for them. They’re not used to this type of food and atmosphere.”
A "bubble around downtown"?
The Whistle Stop opened in 1975 in the building that once housed Glendale’s first general store. More than a century old, the building rattles when the train passes. This town that rolls up the sidewalks before dark wants to maintain its Mayberry atmosphere, but Rook says the Whistle Stop will grow with the times.
“In my business, there’s never a time when there’s too much business. We’ll just have to grow and expand and do what we can do," stated Rook. "A few people have talked about if property values skyrocket, then they couldn’t afford their taxes and stuff like that, so that’s a concern to see some of these small shops that operate on a razor’s margin, to go out of business, that would be totally unfortunate.”
Judge-Executive Keith Taul says Hardin County is working on a plan to insulate the historic area of Glendale from development.
“One of the things we heard from all the meetings out in the community is let’s hold on to Glendale," Taul told WKU Public Radio. "Let’s put a bubble around downtown, and basically keep that area from being overrun with housing, commercial buildings, and stuff that will just completely destroy that small town feel.”
While store owner Lisa Hall is worried about traffic and retaining Glendale’s identity, she's staying optimistic that getting on the map will be good for her bottom line.
“There was a couple of ladies that came in last week from Michigan," Hall said. "I don’t know if it was training going on or visiting the plant, and someone on the plane said you’ve got to stop in and visit the shops in Glendale, so that was really sweet.”
Hall says her fingers are crossed that the largest economic investment in Kentucky history will have a trickle down effect.