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Payne: As California battle rages, Tesla celebrates Michigan win with its first store

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Clarkston — The Tesla Inc. big top is open for business in Michigan.

SUV and sedan models front the new Tesla Clarkston store. The service center is open and the showroom will follow in a few months.

The Silicon Valley automaker has opened its first service center in Michigan since the state overturned its ban on Tesla sales and service in January. The Tesla service center is located off Interstate 75 on Dixie Highway just west of downtown Clarkston in a former Chrysler-Jeep dealership.

Tesla’s raised profile in Michigan comes at a time when the company has been front and center in the COVID-19 shutdown wars for defying California's Alameda County and re-opening its manufacturing facility there in Fremont. Long a darling of the green left for its embrace of environmentally-friendly electric cars, Tesla’s defiant stance on the Michigan and California fronts has made it a hero to free-marketers on the right as well.

Noted Lansing economic consulting firm, the Anderson Economic Group, has found itself on both sides of the barbed wire against Tesla in recent months. After arguing on behalf of dealer bodies that Tesla could not sell directly to customers in states like Michigan, AEG provided crucial fodder this week for Tesla’s California reopening. They found Alameda County COVID cases were substantially lower than those in similar auto manufacturing areas where plants have been authorized to reopen. 

“Our analysis shows daily probable and confirmed cases for Alameda County's 1.6 million population are averaging about 40 per day, with a total thus far of just over 2,000,” said Sara Bowers, a consultant with Anderson Economic Group, in a statement. “In contrast, Wayne County Michigan, with a population of 1.75 million, has approximately 18,000 cases."

Tesla’s Clarkston location offers Michigan Tesla owners their first service location in the state. Previously, Tesla owners had to take their car to Toledo, Cleveland, or Chicago where Tesla was approved under state law. Customers also had the option of scheduling Tesla mobile units to come to their homes which can often take weeks.

The new Tesla Clarkston service center is the brand's first in Michigan after a long legal fight.

Tesla Clarkston will also eventually open a showroom — windows are festooned with signs reading “COMING SOON” — so customers can browse Tesla's lineup of Model 3 and S sedans and X and Y SUVs.

Under Michigan’s previous Tesla ban, enacted by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014, Tesla employees were prohibited from assisting in any sale of a vehicle. Now employees will be able to assist in test drives, price discussions, and other sales activities. However, purchased cars must still be sold outside the state and delivered to customers who can then transfer the title in state.

Michigan had been one of 16 states to bar Tesla sales and service under dealer pressure. But Tesla has endeared itself to green politicians over the years, including the Obama administration which provided a crucial $465 million loan to the electric automaker during the depths of the Great Recession to keep it afloat.

That green cred appealed to incoming Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel who, in their settlement allowing Tesla stores, applauded the company’s  “stated mission of accelerating the world’s transition to electric vehicles for the good of the environment.”

SUV and sedan models front the new Tesla Clarkston store. The service center is open and the showroom will follow in a few months.

Free marketers also applauded the sales ban lift, and Musk’s defiance of Alameda County’s shutdown order has warmed conservatives' heart, too. In this month’s earnings call with investors, he condemned California's shutdown orders as “fascist” and said “it’s breaking people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong and not why they came to America or built this country.”

The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page applauded Tesla’s move this week: “You can understand Mr. Musk’s frustration when Alameda County officials have allowed pot shops to stay open while shuttering his Tesla plant though the company has developed protocols to protect workers. Other governors including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer have given the green light to auto plants run by Tesla’s competitors."

Musk's resistance has inspired businesses across the country in the shutdown reports the Associated Press. A "Stand with Tesla Freedom Rally" was organized for Fremont, California, Wednesday. 

There were no signs of resistance at the Clarkston service center, however, as service members diligently worked through their caseload of EVs.

Tesla’s California pushback — and push into Michigan — come at a crucial time for the company: it has just begun production of its Model Y crossover which is sure to top its popular Model 3 sedan as the brand’s best-selling model.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.