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5 years later, Emerald Automotive is still promising a plant and new jobs in Hazelwood

(Courtesy Emerald Automotive)
In September 2014, Emerald Automotive brought a prototype of the van it plans to build to Hazelwood.

Whatever happened to that company that planned to build electric delivery vans — and create 600 jobs — in Hazelwood?

Five years after British startup Emerald Automotive borrowed $3 million from Hazelwood and $2 million from the Missouri Technology Corporation to develop “green” vehicles, the company’s North American headquarters — a historic home in Hazelwood — is still a very quiet place to work for the two employees based there.

The real action is taking place across the pond, where Emerald’s growing staff is working with the London Taxi Company to develop low-emission taxis. Those vehicles are expected to roll out of an assembly plant in Coventry, England,sometime next year.

Both Emerald and London Taxi are owned by Chinese automaker Geely, which is investing nearly $400 million on the state-of-the-art plant that will have the capacity to produce 30,000 vehicles a year and is projected to create 1,000 jobs.

While Emerald is focused on London taxis for now, a company spokesman and the Hazelwood city manager say the plan to build electric delivery vans — or possibly U.S. Postal Service vehicles — in the city hasn’t changed, though they don't know when that will happen.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The headquarters of Emerald Automotive is housed in this historic home owned by the city of Hazelwood.

All’s quiet on the western front

Gary Marble, Emerald’s marketing and corporate communications director, says the company will be able to take the practical aspects of its work on electric taxis and apply them to the production of delivery vans in Hazelwood.

“We are leagues ahead of where we were,’’ he said.

When the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group purchased Emerald in 2014, the corporation also bought into Emerald’s commitment to build a plant in Hazelwood sometime in the future, according to Marble.

During the acquisition negotiations, both Hazelwood and the Missouri Technology Corporation extended their loan agreements with Emerald to the end of 2018, allowing the company additional time to meet its benchmark: creating 300 jobs and producing 4,000 vans a year in Hazelwood.

Marble says that Geely could have paid off the loans but that would have defeated the purpose.

“The whole purpose for the loans was to create jobs,’’ Marble said. “The idea was let’s keep Geely interested in Missouri, and we have this really cool business plan. So let’s keep them engaged. And they agreed. “

Geely acquired Emerald to help in the development of electric vehicles, starting with London taxis, which must meet new emissions regulations by January 2018, said Marble,  a former state representative. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Gary Marble, director of marketing and corporate communications for Emerald Automotive

His office is on the second floor of the Knobbe House, a historic farmhouse built shortly after the Civil War, which is owned by the city of Hazelwood. He and Emerald’s financial controller work out of the office, which they lease from the city. The company also has legal counsel based in Washington.

In July 2011, Emerald officials made local headlines when they presented plans for their t-001 hybrid electric delivery van to the Hazelwood City Council. At the time, they hoped to have a plant running in the city by 2014 and to be producing 10,000 vehicles a year by 2015.

The driving force for the project has always been its promise of jobs. In 2011, Emerald projected that the plant would hire about 600 workers. That was welcome news for the region which was still recovering from the recession. St. Louis lost nearly 9,000 auto manufacturing jobs between 2006 and 2009, including 2,500 when Ford closed its plant in Hazelwood. After launching its website in 2011, the company received nearly 1,000 job applications.

Emerald had hoped to fund a major portion of the $160 million it needed to build a manufacturing facility with a $100 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. When the federal energy loan program stalled, Emerald began searching for private investors.

As part of the acquisition, Geely has pledged to invest at least $200 million in Emerald’s operations, Marble said. He said Emerald’s work with London Taxi has allowed the startup to take a concept —the TX5 taxi — from paper to production.

“That’s been the most exciting part of seeing the TX5 roll off the end of the line,’’ he said. 

Emerald is also in the running to develop a new delivery vehiclefor the U.S. Postal Service. The company is one of 15 selected by the Postal Service to develop prototypes for an energy-efficient vehicle. The Postal Service is looking to purchase 180,000 vehicles — a contract worth about $5 billion.

If selected, Emerald has saidthat it would build the Postal Service vehicles in Hazelwood and would hire more than 1,300 workers.

Hazelwood officials visit plant in Coventry, England

Hazelwood City Manager Matt Zimmerman says the city’s loan to Emerald has always been about job creation, and he believes the company is continuing to make progress since its acquisition by Geely.

“They have significant resources now to build, and we have the pledge of the CEO of Emerald that they have every intention of building a factory and that factory will be in Hazelwood, Missouri,’’ Zimmerman said. “So, it’s really a question of timing. Not a question of ‘if,’ more a question of ‘when.’ ‘’

He believes the company still has time to meet the loan’s 2018 deadline.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Emerald Automotive leases office space from the city of Hazelwood.

Zimmerman said that he and Hazelwood Mayor Matthew Robinson met with Emerald executives in July while they were in England to attend the Farnborough International Air Show.

“We had a very good meeting,’’ Zimmerman said. “We feel very comfortable with their position. They are focusing their efforts on building the new low-emission taxis for London Taxi, and they’re also working on trying to become the bidder for the Postal Service’s new delivery van.’’

Zimmerman said they toured the factory site in Coventry and met with Rian Urding, CEO of Emerald’s North American operations and Andy Tempest, who formed Emerald and introduced the company to Hazelwood city officials in 2011.

“We also went over all their organizational charts and hiring chart,’’ Zimmerman said. “They’ve gone from five employees to over 100 employees in the last two years since we last had substantive talks with them when we amended the contract.’’

Although Emerald is focused now on London taxis and a possible Postal Service contract, the company still has every intention of building the t-001 delivery van, Zimmerman said.

“They also reiterated their pledge to build their factory in Hazelwood, and I see no reason to think that won’t be the case,” he said.

In a brief statement, the Missouri Technology Corporation said, “We have been provided with updates (most recently in May of this year) that indicate the company is still on track and further developing its technology under its parent company Geely, which acquired Emerald Automotive in 2014.”

Though some in the British automotive trade press have speculatedthat Emerald's delivery vans will also be built at the new Coventry plant, Zimmerman said they were assured by company officials that vans or Postal Service vehicles for the U.S. market would be built in Hazelwood because the cost of overseas shipping would be prohibitive.

Marble understands why people have questions, but he insists that Emerald will eventually build energy-efficient vehicles in Hazelwood.

“It’s been a long time, and everyone’s been patient,’’ he said. “Major progress takes time. You can’t go in and build a $200 million operation, from scratch with a brand new vehicle, in a year. It’s going to take time.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.