Not In Pataskala town hall draws 200 people concerned about China – The Newark Advocate

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Roughly 200 people filled a Pataskala auditorium last week to voice their concerns over a new local manufacturer’s ties to China.

Not In Pataskala, a grassroots group that for months has voiced concerns about Illuminate USA, a new solar panel factory in Pataskala, held a town hall Tuesday night at Licking Heights Middle School. A Chinese company jointly invested in Illuminate USA, and some residents therefore believe it has ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

The group has adopted the logo of a black X under the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle, which it has put on T-shirts and yard signs that were handed out after the event.

Illuminate USA was announced in March 2023 as a joint venture between renewable energy company Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer of several solar projects in Ohio, and Chinese solar panel manufacturer LONGi. The company began production Feb. 15, as the first solar panels rolled off the factory’s assembly line, 3600 Etna Parkway. Invenergy owns 51% of Illuminate USA, while LONGi owns the other 49%.

When the factory is at full capacity by the end of 2024, it will be one of the nation’s largest advanced solar panel manufacturing facilities.

Not In Pataskala brought in Emily de La Bruyere and Nate Picarsic, senior fellows with the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and co-founders of Horizon Advisory, a consulting firm focused on the implications of China’s competitive approach to geopolitics, according to the FDD’s website.

From left, Pataskala resident Eileen DeRolf, town hall moderator Michael McKenna (behind DeRolf), expert Nate Picarsic and expert Emily de La Bruyere during the Not In Our Town Townhall on Tuesday at Licking Heights Middle School.

The town hall was moderated by Michael McKenna, a visiting fellow in the executive vice president’s office at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

Pataskala resident Eileen DeRolf, one of the leaders for the Not In Pataskala group, also spoke and answered residents’ questions.

None of the presenters are connected with Illuminate USA or the city of Pataskala, and no officials from the city, Illuminate USA, Invenergy or LONGi participated in the event.

Picarsic and de La Bruyere spoke generally about what they called Chinese infiltration into U.S. industries.

To prevent that, DeRolf said one of the group’s main goals is to push legislators at the state and national level to limit Chinese influence in U.S. businesses. That includes House Bill 212, which would prohibit foreign adversaries and certain businesses from owning property in Ohio and has been referred to the Ohio House Civil Justice Committee.

“America is a great country. Politicians, ultimately, listen to what American people say, and this is a chance to actually be loud about that and say the American population doesn’t want China taking over our country,” de La Bruyere said.

McKenna did not limit residents’ questions or comment topics, even if they went outside the scope of expertise of himself, de La Bruyere and Picarsic. As a result, some comments went unaddressed by the trio, such as the impacts of solar farms on farmland.

A woman, who did not share her name, speaks Tuesday during the Not In Our Town Townhall at Licking Heights Middle School, which drew roughly 200 people.

Residents asked specific questions about Illuminate USA, including how many local jobs have been created, the factory’s future now that it’s operation and the degree of Chinese Communist Party involvement at the plant. But McKenna, de La Bruyere and Picarsic could not speak to those because they have not been inside the 1.1 million-square-foot facility.

Illuminate USA shared in mid-February that to date it had hired more than 475 employees in central Ohio. Eventually, the company will have 1,000 employees.

A Licking Heights student, who did not share her name, asked the panel if this topic was more important to highlight than the dangers students face going to school every day, such as school shootings, which she felt isn’t getting enough attention. She said Licking Heights has had about four lockdowns already this school year and roughly 20 lockdowns in her four years as a student.

McKenna said as a father and grandfather, shootings are one of his top concerns, too. But so is China’s influence in America.

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive. We can worry about both at the same time,” he said.

DeRolf said staying alive is very important but so is having the freedom that comes with living in America.

“If you don’t have freedom, you got nothing but your life. But what are you going to do with it?” she said. “It is really critical that we protect our freedoms. We are the country of freedoms, and we can’t give that up.”

The student’s question was referenced by other speakers, including by a woman, who also did not share her name, that said while school shooting are an important topic that can’t be forgotten, America needs to remain a place where young people “can be free to do all the things that God’s called you to do.”

When Matt Smith, of Pataskala, set up his question by saying people don’t want Illuminate USA in Pataskala because of its owned by the Chinese, a few crowd members were quick to respond that it’s because of the Chinese Communist Party. Smith continued, saying the U.S. is part of a global economy and foreign countries are investing in other companies. He asked if that meant residents wanted other companies, such as Intel and Amazon, to also leave Licking County.

A handful of people in the crowd shouted back; one said America needs to put itself first. Someone else cheered “USA! USA! USA!”

Picarsic said it was a good question and points to the nuance about the way that economic competition plays out globally.

“I think other companies that you raised also have supply chain issues and may appear to be more American on paper than these companies but may have supply chains that are just as bad, and, yes, they should be taken to task just as these companies are taken to task,” he said. “Bottom line, though, we have to allow market principles to actually have fair and free open competition.”

Shane Pierce, of Pataskala, who shared he is running for a seat on the Licking County Republican Central Committee, asked what those in attendance could do to help.

DeRolf said people need to get involved by calling their representatives at the local, state and national level and by running for elected office.

“I pride myself in being a watchdog and watching council and making a stink when it needs to be made, and there is a position for that,” she said. “But there is the need to have better politicians that will listen to the constituents and follow common sense, and we’ve got to find those people to go into those positions.”

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