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Bipartisan support seals deal with incentives package

In an increasingly rare show of bipartisan unity, state lawmakers passed a comprehensive $323.9-million incentive package for Toyota during a March 2 special session in Jackson called by Gov. Haley Barbour.

To seal the deal to land the $1.3-billion Toyota auto assembly plant at the Wellspring site near Blue Springs in Northeast Mississippi, Senate Bill 3215 was passed at 9:43 a.m. House colleagues approved the bill unanimously at 10:17 a.m.

The only sticking point concerned local bond bills, which required a floor vote, and Q&A sessions with major economic developers involved in the project. An hour later, after minority business owners were assured participation in the project, that issue was resolved.

By the time Barbour signed the legislation at 4:25 p.m., hundreds of supporters milling around the State Capitol were proudly sporting flashing Wellspring pins and red Toyota baseball caps.

‘Labor of love’

“It’s been a real labor of love,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation (CDF) in Tupelo, the lead marketer for the Wellspring site. “These counties and public officials at every level have stuck with us a long, long time through the process. Their political careers in some cases were on the line. A lot of them drew opponents for this election, when no one thought Toyota was coming.”

In fact, the Toyota project — code name Tango — was such a well-kept secret that many folks were caught off-guard by the announcement. Some eyebrows were raised that the Mississippi Legislature had not passed an incentive package prior to the announcement.

“It’s very unusual,” said Buzz Canup, who helped usher the Nissan deal to Canton as a consultant for the Mississippi Development Authority. “Certainly, the incentives portion of the final decision is extremely important. To announce a location first could put the incentives in jeopardy.”

Meeting obligations

Mark Sweeney, a well-known site selection consultant from South Carolina for the automotive industry, whose company, McCallum Sweeney Consulting ,helped certify the Wellspring and Chattanooga industrial megasites for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said Toyota announcing the Mississippi site before the incentive package was in place was “not typical, but not shocking.”

“It’s not typical to make an announcement before all the incentives are committed, but I’m not shocked by it,” he said.

Rumbarger explained that the legislation, because of secrecy, had to come after the memorandum of understanding with Toyota was finalized February 23.

“Even in the legislation, there were a few little things different, so the document is being redrafted as we speak,” Rumbarger said March 5. “It also enjoins other parties — PUL (Pontotoc Union and Lee counties’ alliance), the cities of Blue Springs and Pontotoc, the CDF and others — so we’re all a party to that document to fulfill the incentives we told them we would fulfill, each one in its own turn.”

The Toyota deal has been considered by many business leaders as a godsend to Northeast Mississippi, which has struggled with significant job losses associated with the furniture industry.

‘I’ll never forget’

Reaching full fruition of the nearly three-year Toyota courtship also buoyed the mood of Mississippi economic developers who watched the first Toyota plant locate in San Antonio, Texas. Last year, they were disappointed when Kia selected West Point, Ga., instead of a highly-touted Mississippi site for its new auto assembly plant. The announcement also quells frustration concerning the Wellspring site, which the state declined to provide money to acquire last year.

“This was the culmination of some very exciting times,” said Joe Geddie, executive director of the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association. “I was driving to Jackson when I heard the announcement. My hands started shaking and I got tears in my eyes. I’ll never forget it.”

About Lynne W. Jeter

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