The Hail Mary
Danville and Pittsylvania land van manufacturer
Football isn’t the only occupation in which a wild, slim-chance pass can deliver a win. Last fall, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and Danville and Pittsylvania County officials launched a Hail Mary economic pitch that landed a $57.89 million expansion project from Michigan-based van manufacturer Morgan Olson LLC.
Morgan Olson is establishing a walk-in step van assembly operation in the 925,000-square-foot plant formerly owned by Swedish furniture retailer Ikea, which shut down its operations there in December. The October 2019 announcement from Morgan Olson came about 90 days after Ikea said it would be leaving Danville and laying off around 300 workers.
Morgan Olson President and CEO Mike Ownbey said in February that the company may create as many as 1,000 jobs at the plant.
VEDP began courting Morgan Olson in May 2019. North America’s largest van manufacturer, Morgan Olson had plans to expand operations into two locations. Ownbey says they hadn’t found what they needed, given the assembly line’s specific needs, including ceilings 48 feet or higher and 150 to 200 acres of parking space.
However, Ikea’s pullout spurred Danville and Pittsylvania officials to make another run at landing Morgan Olson.
It was late in the game for the Morgan Olson deal, but “we got to throw the ball,” says Telly Tucker, former director of economic development for Danville. (Tucker took a job as Arlington County’s economic development head in January.) “Putting together a deal of this size and magnitude in three months is unheard of. It’s a testimony to how VEDP is attuned to what the industry needs and how responsive the state needs to be to get consideration for these projects.”
When state officials took Morgan Olson officials on a tour of the Ikea plant, which is located in Pittsylvania County just outside Danville, “we liked what we saw, and we stopped our search and focused on this area,” Ownbey recalls.
Landing the company was a collaborative effort that also included state, local and regional partners such as Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball and Linda Green, executive director of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance. VEDP and the Virginia Community College System created a workforce training program at Danville Community College specifically geared toward Morgan Olson’s needs.
The Port of Virginia was a major negotiating chip because Morgan Olson imports steel rolls. “We were able to demonstrate that we could bring larger shipments into Virginia, and they could be in Danville in four hours,” Tucker says.
When Ikea employee David Aaron heard Morgan Olson was taking over the plant and creating more jobs, he felt hopeful. He had been working at the manufacturing facility for two years in engineering and process improvement. “This is the second plant closure for me,” he says. “I was shocked because Ikea was a global company.”
Some people at the plant took the attitude that the closing marked a time for a new opportunity, and Aaron decided to see it that way as well. “Sometimes we need that push to grow, and this was that push for a lot of people,” he says.
Ikea also lent a hand to the state’s search for a new occupant for its plant. “They wanted to leave things in the best possible posture to the community that had supported them for so long,” Moret says. “I give Ikea credit for selling the plant at less than open market [rate] and for working with us on a timeline and letting Morgan Olson do due diligence and environmental reviews.”
The entire experience was one that VEDP President and CEO Stephen Moret had never seen before — having a plant closure announced, thinking a deal was lost and then having that same employer come in and resurrect a plant within three months was “amazing,” he says.