WILMINGTON -- For months now, efforts to build a high-tech hybrid car at the former General Motors plant near Newport have been the stuff of plans, projections and predictions. On Monday, it became clear how close the reality of that vision really is.
Fisker Automotive executives said Monday night that environmental assessments of the plant by the local firm Brightfields are in motion, and that the start of renovations of the sprawling old Boxwood Road plant are just a couple of months away. By August, work that will retool machinery to the car's specifications will get started, meaning that scores of local workers will start seeing the benefits far sooner than the scheduled rollout of the first production model in late 2012, Fisker officials said.
Along with the Wilmington-based Brightfields environmental consulting firm, local businesses will continue to play a major role in renovation and retooling, Fisker partner and Chief Operations Officer Bernie Koehler said at Monday's Annual Dinner of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.
In September 2011, work will begin in Wilmington on prototypes of the plug-in gas-electric hybrid, now known as "Project Nina," designed to be a lower-cost, higher-volume model of the Karma, Fisker's first car.
The start of hiring for the plant work force itself remains uncertain and will get under way once production plans are finished, Koehler said.
"We're working at lightning speed," he said.
Phase One of environmental studies, now completed, did not reveal any major problems, he said.
The Karma, priced at more than $80,000, will hit showrooms this fall. It is being built in Finland.
Eventually, Delaware will get a second production model -- in addition to "Project Nina" -- called the Karma Sunset. Delaware production is expected to create 2,000 factory jobs and more than 3,000 vendor-supplier jobs when production reaches full capacity in 2014.
Calling it a "perfect storm" of conditions, Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker said the forces of public sentiment, government support and technological advancements have combined to give the project the momentum that eventually could make Fisker the leader in this type of "green" power. With the strength of Delaware's work force and its "perfect" location near an Atlantic port, Fisker believes the plant will eventually produce 50 percent of its cars for overseas markets, and he projected Monday that 100,000 cars a year will roll off the line.
"We believe we can take on the big conglomerates," Fisker told business owners and public officials. "We are fast. We are nimble."
Locally, the cars will be sold at Union Park Automotive. Nationally, Fisker already has signed on a network of 45 dealers.
"If it was up to me, I'd like to start production tomorrow," he said, noting that while it would take time to make the cars more affordable to more people, the market is clearly prime for a car that combines style and performance with energy efficiency.
"I truly believe there has been a change in people's mentality," Fisker said. "I think the green car has become a status symbol."