Less than a year ago, Oklahoma lost out on landing a new Tesla manufacturing facility that eventually found a home south of the Red River.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and state officials pitched Tesla CEO Elon Musk on the merits of Oklahoma and why it was worthy, but to no avail. Tulsa was named a finalist, but Austin, Texas, was the eventual winner. Stitt and other state officials promised to continue pursuing manufacturing jobs and automotive businesses, but who would actually come?
Thursday, that question was answered when an electric vehicle company called Canoo stepped into the picture.
Canoo CEO Tony Aquila, along with Stitt, announced the Los Angeles-based electric vehicle business is expanding and will build a 400-acre manufacturing facility in Pryor — bringing nearly 2,000 jobs along the way.
“Because of that (Tesla) experience, we learned what automobile manufacturers need, and it sharpened our game,” Stitt said.
This time, it was Oklahoma that beat out the competition. The Los Angeles-based company also considered Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida.
It’s a big win for the governor and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, which has been targeting the automobile industry, particularly auto manufacturers, in a bid to diversify Oklahoma’s economy.
As for Canoo, it’s been a process that started with a meeting between Stitt and Aquila.
Canoo, Oklahoma leaders ‘just kind of hit it off’
Stitt first met Aquila a few months ago. The governor later flew to California to see Canoo’s research and development facility and to continue to sell Oklahoma as a home for Canoo’s manufacturing.
“We just kind of hit it off,” Stitt said. “We pitched Oklahoma as the right place to be a manufacturer. We want to innovate, we want to diversify our economy.”
As part of the pitch, Oklahoma offered several incentives to Canoo. The governor’s office could not disclose the exact terms of the deal, the governor’s spokesman said.
During the trip to California, Stitt brought University of Oklahoma President Joseph Harroz Jr. to highlight the engagement between commerce and higher education.
Bringing Harroz along during his tour of Canoo’s facilities in California showcased universities’ involvement in training the kind of workforce Canoo will need.
Concerns about Oklahoma’s ability to provide a highly trained workforce has dogged the state, and likely contributed to Saab’s decision to build an aircraft manufacturing plant in Indiana rather than Oklahoma in 2019. At the time, Saab praised the collaboration it would have with nearby Purdue University to build the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation jet trainer.
“It would not be smart for Commerce not to engage the workforce and explain to those companies how we’re going to make sure they have the right talent, the right skillset to innovate and get the workforce these companies need,” Stitt said.
Aquila believes advanced manufacturing jobs are important for America. As he looked for places to build the Canoo plant, he targeted states that have a transitioning workforce capable of those kinds of jobs. He also wants to hire military veterans.
“Your labor shed is really good in that area,” Aquila said.
Before joining Canoo, Aquila moved from Silicon Valley to Texas about a decade ago. He sees a lot of potential in the Sooner State, especially with the growth of tech-focused industries, the presence of Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser and the Google Data Center also located in Pryor.
“The same perspective we had on Texas in (2008-2009), the exact same view we have on Oklahoma. If you go to Tulsa, just look at the vibe. It’s got a great vibe going,” Aquila said. “That corner of the state puts you near a lot of Fortune 500 companies in between there and Arkansas.”
Aquila also has a familial tie to eastern Oklahoma. His dad is from McAlester.
The governor anticipates Canoo won’t be the only company hiring when the manufacturing facility is complete.
“When you talk about a mega-factory like this with 1,500 to 2,000 employees, then you’re talking about all the ancillary suppliers that have to feed that industry,” he said. “From the battery companies to the janitorial supplies, to the glass companies; there’ll be a ripple effect across the state.”
The Canoo campus will include a full commercialization facility with a paint, body shop and general assembly plant. It will also include a low-volume industrialization facility.
Canoo is scheduled to bring its first vehicle to market in 2022 by partnering with VDL Nedcar in the Netherlands while the Oklahoma facility is built, according to the company.
Unlike Tesla, which sells vehicles directly to customers, Stitt expects that once Canoo’s vehicles hit the road they’ll be sold through more traditional car dealerships.
Canoo will offer three models and will target both personal consumers and business customers.