First Solar Inc. will make a capital investment of $900 million in the plant it announced last week it is building in Lawrence County and will have an annual payroll of almost $40 million, according to its agreement with the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board.
It will take about three years for First Solar Inc. to employ the projected 715 workers it needs to produce modules for solar panels at its Mallard Fox West Industrial Park facility on Alabama 20, located about one-half mile west of the Decatur city limits. Lawrence County and company officials said the facility will bring hundreds of indirect jobs.
According to the agreement between First Solar, of Tempe, Arizona, and the Lawrence County IDB, the company will employ about 10 employees next year, another 159 in 2024 and 546 more in 2025 with a total payroll in 2025 of $39.8 million.
The average salary by the end of 2025 will be $26.77 an hour, or $55,681 per year, according to the abatement agreement with Lawrence County IDB obtained by The Daily this week. This average incorporates higher paid salaried workers as well as hourly employees.
First Solar says in its agreement with Lawrence IDB that its $900 million capital investment will include about $20 million for land, $440 million for buildings and $440 million for manufacturing machinery.
The First Solar factory, to be located at 20284 Alabama 20 in the Trinity police jurisdiction, will be 2.4-million-square-feet, or about 55 acres. The facility will be adjacent to Lawrence County 222 on the southwest side of the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park.
Lawrence County IDB President and CEO Tabitha Pace said First Solar is purchasing the property for $15 million to $20 million from a private landowner.
The state's industrial development training institute, AIDT, will assist First Solar with recruiting and training workers, the company said at last week's announcement.
First Solar spokesman Reuven Proenca said the company will be hiring to fill numerous positions, including engineers, technicians and factory floor workers.
“While designing and building a factory of the future, we’re challenging ourselves to focus on the continuous improvement of our throughput, quality and safety through automation without losing sight or our greatest strength, our people,” Proenca wrote in an email. “We see this as an opportunity to hire associates with a wide range of skills and capabilities."
Employee benefits include medical coverage, tuition reimbursement, wellness programs and paid parental leave, he said.
Property tax abatements and sales tax abatements were the major incentives offered to First Solar, officials said. First Solar looked at about 100 locations, many of them in the Southeast, before deciding on Lawrence County, they said.
The company will pay no state or local noneducational taxes for 20 years, and noneducational sales and use taxes will also be abated during the construction period, according to the incentive agreement. Limestone County and the state gave Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing USA similar abatements.
According to the First Solar agreement, the waived property taxes will come to about $2.5 million per year — for a total of $50 million — over the 20-year abatement period.
Noneducational construction-related transaction taxes are expected to be about $19,053,000, according to the agreement.
Proenca said his company chose Lawrence County using a “comprehensive range” of criteria.
“This includes the cost of land, access to transportation and logistics hubs, the existence of operating or potential suppliers, the potential to grow a new supplier base, access to a skilled workforce, reliable energy supplies and state, regional and local incentives,” he said in the email.
Along with the state and Lawrence County tax abatements, the Morgan County Commission intends to provide $150,000 in incentive money, Commission Chairman Ray Long said.
“We can’t vote on it until it was approved in Lawrence,” he said last week. “People who live in Morgan County will get some of those nice-paying jobs."
Morgan County contributed $500,000 to the Mazda-Toyota incentive package.
The Lawrence County IDB agreed to pay up to $500,000 to offset costs to redirect a stream on the facility's site and another $95,000 to offset costs for surveying and engineering, Pace said. Road improvements to Lawrence County 222 and Cooperage Way in the industrial park also are included in the incentive package, she said.
"Grants will be pursued for the improvements," she said.
Boost for county
First Solar estimates that its new investments in Alabama and those at established facilities in Ohio will add at least 850 new manufacturing and more than 100 new research and development jobs, taking its total number of direct jobs in the country to more than 3,000 people in four states by 2025.
Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jerry Felks said he expects First Solar's direct and indirect jobs to jump-start the county’s population.
“I would say we’ll see hundreds of jobs created due to current businesses hiring more to keep up with the demand of the influx of new people coming to the area,” Felks said. “I would expect at least 20% to 25% growth in people living here. … (We need) more restaurants and maybe more chain and small business retail shops. We will see more people coming in to shop and eat, and homebuilders will be seeing a rise in new homes being built and current home and land sales booming.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lawrence County’s population dwindled from 34,339 in 2010 to 33,073 in 2020.
Kenneth Brackins, the chairman of Lawrence IDB, called the arrival of First Solar “phenomenal and transformative.”
“Once things start to actually happen, we’ll see other indirect jobs,” he said. “When you look at the pay scale they are offering, they won’t have trouble securing workers from other industries to fill these jobs. Certainly, some of those workers at jobs along the (Tennessee River) will move over to First Solar.”
Brackins said the First Solar jobs will be especially attractive to people who live south of the river.
“When they can come to Lawrence and avoid going over the (Hudson Memorial Bridge) and that traffic every day and still get a living wage to raise a family and build a house, that will be very appealing. It will be a boon for anybody in Lawrence County that wishes to have a good-paying industry job. ... Time is important. Imagine driving 20 to 25 minutes instead of driving maybe an hour to work and all with a living wage.”
He said First Solar coupled with the Lockheed Martin hypersonic missile manufacturing facility in Courtland suggest positive things are in Lawrence County's future.
“We are in a very good place, a place we’ve never been before. It will transform the county,” he said.
The 2020 census reported 15.4% of Lawrence County residents live in poverty.
Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said First Solar will provide jobs for the entire region. He isn’t too concerned about Morgan County's major manufacturers losing workers to First Solar in a tight labor market.
“While some of our facilities may lose workers, the majority of our major manufacturers pay a similar average hourly wage with competitive benefits packages,” he said. “North Alabama continues to attract residents looking for new opportunities. Workforce development efforts will continue at the local, regional and state level to help fill that pipeline. We would certainly be an attractive place for suppliers due to our proximity.”
Pace predicts the Hillsboro and Trinity areas will see immediate growth when construction of the First Solar plant begins.
“In that area there are not a lot of restaurants, convenience stores,” she said. “When you have the activity that will be happening there, we could see some businesses like those popping up there real soon.”
She expects suppliers and other businesses to locate in Lawrence County to meet First Solar's needs.
“We’re not the ugly stepchild any more," Pace said. "This continues to show we can bring really good companies to our area and be proud of that.”
Lawrence County has struggled over the past eight years to recover from the March 2014 closure of the International Paper mill in Courtland. IP was the county's largest taxpayer before it shut down, eliminating 1,100 jobs.