WWTD?

To decipher that, read along.

To say that local officials are a little anxious about next week's ITC ruling on the SK Battery patent lawsuit would probably be an understatement.

Jackson County, and its officials, have a lot — A LOT — riding on the outcome of that case. 

SK has quickly become Jackson County's future identity.

Everything from local economic development to education to politics has become intwined with SK's massive EV battery project in Commerce. For many leaders across the county, SK represents a bright new future that will bring high-tech jobs to the county, additional tax base and funds to pay for a vast array of local projects.

"Transformative" would be the key word here.

The project is huge, the state's second-largest investment ever. Its $1.6 billion investment is almost as large as the county's net tax digest. It dwarfs every other local business in size no matter how you measure it.

•••

That size, however, could be both a blessing and a curse. 

Anytime a community allows itself to become dependent on one business or one industry, there's the possibility of a bust.  

Remember what happened when textiles moved overseas and cotton mills in the country closed down? Communities disrupted by the sudden dislocation of jobs, tax dollars and leadership.

Diversity of an economy with a variety different business sectors and job types is always better than becoming heavily dependent on one single business.

That's especially true in unstable, high-tech sectors like electric vehicle batteries. Nobody knows where all of that is heading in the future, if it will last or if the technology will suddenly be usurped by something not yet invented.

On the upside, SK could be the beginning of a new "Silicon Valley" of the South, bringing innovation and allied high-tech jobs to the region.

On the downside, it could be a flash-in-the-pan, a brief experiment that doesn't have legs for the long-run.

One can be optimistic, but a realist would also be cautious.

•••

In addition to becoming overly-dependent on one industrial sector, Jackson County also faces some other issues regarding SK.

For one thing, SK keeps shooting itself in the foot.

The most recent example of that was allowing — by neglect or design isn't clear — its contractors and subcontractors to import illegal labor to help build its battery plants in Commerce.

That situation created a firestorm of backlash. Local and state officials were caught off-guard by the situation. Maybe the illegal hiring wasn't SK's fault directly, but the buck has to stop somewhere. 

While the situation wasn't enough to derail the facility, it did tarnish SK's image and by extension, the image of those state and local officials who had invested their own reputations to bring SK to the community. 

To many in the general public, the situation stank. Although many people like the idea of the creation of 2,600 jobs, they didn't like the generous incentives given SK by the state or by local governments. Let's call it what it is: Corporate welfare.

SK knew how to sign the legal paperwork to get the sweetheart deal, but they didn't know how to police the legality of who their contractors hired?

To John Doe Jackson Countain, that doesn't make much sense.

•••

But all of that is minor compared to the impending ruling from the International Trade Commission over allegations that SK stole trade secrets from a rival, LG Chem about EV battery technology.

Making matters worse, SK is alleged to have destroyed documents and evidence about the case even after the ITC became involved.

All of that may seem distant — who really cares what kind of industrial BS two mega-international-corporations do to each other? 

But the actions do beg this question: What kind of corporate citizen is SK?

•••

The ITC has indicated that it will rule against SK in the lawsuit. 

If that happens, the ITC could stop SK from importing the machines and parts needed to manufacture batteries in Commerce. While SK might be able to find a way around that, in the short term it would roil the world-wide EV supply chain.

That's why EV and automotive industry officials are begging the ITC to not sanction SK and to allow the firm's plans to proceed.

State and local official are also asking the ITC to let SK move forward in order to protect those promised 2,600 jobs. 

All of that indicates that SK has become too big, too important to fail.

•••

But it also brings up another interesting point, which is the opening line of this column: WWTD?

If the ITC rules against SK and issues sanctions which cripple its ability to open its Commerce facility, SK has one last card to play: The president.

The only person who can overrule the ITC is President Trump.

So the question is, What Would Trump Do?

On the one hand, Trump loves creating jobs and taking credit for creating jobs. He's intensely focused on the economy and on shoring up the stock market.

In addition, many Georgia Republicans are laying the groundwork to petition Trump to overturn an adverse ITC ruling in the SK lawsuit, citing the jobs equation.

And given that this area is about 80% Trump voters, it would seem like the president would be amenable to overturning the ITC and allow SK to proceed.

But...

What if Trump loses the Nov. 3 election? Would he really care about the ITC?

And if Trump wins, what if Georgia votes for Biden and not Trump this time? Would Trump care anymore about the state?

It's impossible to predict with any certainty what he might do with an ITC ruling that goes against SK.

All of which means that Jackson County's future economic direction may well rest in the president's mercurial hands.

WWTD?

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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