Tesla’s first Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, has a well-documented place in the company’s history, both for how it helped Elon Musk ship his first mass-market electric car and because production problems there nearly doomed the automaker. But what’s been harder to come by is an account of the impact the factory has had on the town it was built for — until this week, that is. USA Today’s The City podcast spent an episode vividly retelling how Tesla’s first Gigafactory came to Reno with a deep dive into the way it’s changed the city.
It’s a timely piece of journalism. On the same day that the episode and its companion piece were published, Tesla announced that its fourth Gigafactory will be built outside of Berlin, Germany. Tesla is close to starting production at its third Gigafactory in China, outside Shanghai, after racing through construction there across 2019. And New York state just wrote down the value of the company’s second Gigafactory in Buffalo by more than $800 million.
In the episode, Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Anjeanette Damon takes listeners back through the multistate competition for Tesla’s first Gigafactory and talks to people — like a local brothel owner — who ultimately helped the deal come to fruition. She also digs at the central tensions currently in play out there, including how Tesla’s hiring spree has impacted Reno’s housing crisis and how the company leans on public resources that — thanks to the sweetheart tax abatements it landed — it’s ostensibly not paying for.
The Gigafactory has been in the news plenty over the last few years, including for allegations from whistleblowers about potential drug trafficking, hacking, and spying. But Damon digs into the more human toll of life as a Gigafactory worker. She uncovered nearly 1,300 calls to 911 (a rate of more than one per day), a repeated number of visits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and accounts of workplace injuries that seem to have gone unreported, all of which build on previous reporting about the conditions at Tesla’s factories.
“In the five years that we’ve had to asses the effect [the Gigafactory has] had on the workforce, on the community, I think there have been these ramifications that we talk about in the episode that nobody was really prepared for,” Damon said in an interview with The Verge. “Like, we knew there was going to be an issue with housing, which other cities are experiencing, too. But that’s become super critical.”
In the episode, Damon describes all the different ways Tesla employees seem to make the 20-minute trek outside of Reno each day. Some drive, while others take shuttle buses from semipermanent stays at hotel casinos or even Walmart parking lots. It builds on the previous three episodes of The City’s second season, which is all about how Reno is changing (and why it’s being changed) from a small free-wheeling city to something bigger and more buttoned up.
Tesla is just one part of that change, and Damon was quick to point out that other big tech companies like Apple have set up shop outside of Reno, with each addition ramping up the pressure. But, she says, “they’ve become the symbol for all the growth here, and kind of the changes in the worsening stratification that’s happening among the haves and have nots in this community.”
Tesla is known for its cars, but the company’s massive factories are just as crucial to its future. As the company starts bringing them to other countries, it’s worth exploring the impact they have on the cities and people who wind up working there. When I visited the Reno Gigafactory for our feature on the place last year, I also came away asking: “What kind of company towns does Tesla plan to build around its Gigafactories?”
This newest episode of The City is the best answer yet.