Enerblu promised hundreds of jobs in Eastern Kentucky. It just suspended those plans.

Enerblu, the battery manufacturing plant that promised hundreds of jobs for Eastern Kentucky, announced Tuesday that it has suspended its plans to build in Pikeville.

In late 2017, the then-California-based company said it would build a $372 million battery manufacturing plant and bring 875 jobs to Pikeville.

According to a news release, the company has suspended those plans after its primary potential investor withdrew support for the Pikeville factory, citing a “series of unexpected geopolitical factors” in late 2018.

“We are extremely disappointed with this potential investor’s decision and are well aware of the hope that Enerblu’s project has generated in Pikeville and the eastern Kentucky region,” John Thomas, Enerblu’s newly-appointed CEO, said in the news release. “As we move forward as a company to develop a viable and impactful project, we encourage other companies to discover what we found within this region of Appalachia.”

The company’s ambitious project was lauded by public officials as a potentially transformative boon to Eastern Kentucky’s faltering economy. Last month, though, then-CEO Daniel Elliott gave a wary speech to the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Pikeville.

Elliott said the ground at the industrial park proved difficult to build on, and that soil work to make the ground viable would cost $30 million to fix. “We’re trying like hell,” Elliott told the crowd. “It’s a lot harder than we thought.”

Still, some officials remained hopeful, and Elliott even increased the number of potential employees in Pikeville from 875 to as high as 1,500.

It is unclear how long Enerblu officials have known the company would suspend its plans to build in Pikeville.

“While it’s disappointing, its part of the nature of this work — that not every project comes to fruition the way we hope it would,” said Jared Arnett, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. “This is a dark cloud and its remnants may linger for some time, but we will press forward, unified, in search of new opportunities that will bring lasting change for our generation and generations to come.”

Jack Mazurak, communications director for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, said the cabinet is disappointed with Enerblu’s setback, but that officials “will stand by to offer support.”

“Our Cabinet applauds the company’s persistence, dedication to Kentucky and vision to make a positive long-term impact in the commonwealth and for a clean-energy future,” Mazurak said. “We remain committed to recruiting new and expanding companies and new jobs for eastern Kentucky, and in fact for the entire state.”

The company’s initial announcement in December 2017 brought hope to this economically distressed area.

“It’s a game-changer not only for Pikeville and Pike County, but for the entire region,” said then-state Sen. Ray Jones at Enerblu’s 2017 announcement. Jones is now the Pike County judge-executive.

Gov. Matt Bevin called the project “truly transformative,” and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said “we’ve dreamed about this day.”

Public officials have been working for years to attract new industry and jobs to the region, where the precipitous decline in coal production has left residents with few options for well-paying jobs.

In the third quarter of 2013, there were more than 8,000 coal jobs in the region. That figure dropped to about 3,800 in the third quarter of 2018.

The loss of coal production has brought a decline in the region’s general population, putting a strain on local governments and utilities that rely on taxpayer and rate-payer dollars.

Pike County lost about 5,000 residents between 2013 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Other Eastern Kentucky counties have also seen thousands of residents leave in recent years.

“It is very disheartening to learn that EnerBlu is withdrawing plans to bring 875 good-paying jobs to the Big Sandy area, but we know that multimillion dollar projects come with immense obstacles,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, whose district includes most of Eastern Kentucky. “Unfortunately, this is part of the difficult process of rebuilding, reimagining and reshaping our rural region, but one change in business plans will not define our future. I am confident future opportunities will arise from the groundwork that has already been laid for business development at the Kentucky Enterprise Industrial Park.”

Enerblu is one of several projects that officials believed could help turn the tide.

At Pikeville’s industrial park, though, Enerblu is the second major project to back out in recent months.

Last month, AppHarvest, a high-tech greenhouse company that anticipated bringing 140 jobs to Pikeville, announced it would move its operations to Morehead.

The city of Pikeville rescinded AppHarvest’s lease at the industrial park in November 2018 after the company failed to respond to requests for information from city officials, according to the Appalachian News-Express.

AppHarvest, too, said the ground at the industrial park was not suitable for their project.

One company, SilverLiner, a tanker-truck manufacturer, has built on the site and plans to move into its building this spring, according to East Kentucky Broadcasting Television.

Philip Elswick, Pikeville’s city manager, said city officials were disappointed to learn that Enerblu has suspended its Pikeville project. He said the city “remains committed to attracting high-paying jobs and tremendous corporate citizens to utilize our top-notch industrial site.”

“Throughout the process of working with EnerBlu, our city officials and local economic development authorities have given this partnership an abundance of attention for what we know could have been a transformative project for our community,” Elswick said.

In northeastern Kentucky, another major industrial project, Braidy Industires, announced last year that it still required $400 to $500 million of financing before it could begin construction, but said its plans remain on schedule.

That company also has been lauded as a potential game-changer for Eastern Kentucky’s economy, with a promise of 600 full-time jobs with an average salary of $70,000.

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet announced last year that the state would issue a $4 million Abandoned Mine Lands grant to help prepare the site for Braidy Industries’ aluminum mill.

A Braidy spokesperson told the Herald-Leader last year the company and its subsidiaries “remain on a critical path” to opening the proposed facility.

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.