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North Mississippi communities in gear for Toyota

Calhoun County is in the market for an economic developer. Officials there have known for months they needed someone to work at recruiting industry to the area in northeastern Mississippi.

But filling the position has reached a new urgency.
Announcement of a major international automaker’s decision to locate an assembly plant within a few minutes’ drive of the county has a way of doing that.

“We’re right in the middle of chartering an economic development commission,” said Mayor J.R. Denton. “And this was known way before (Toyota’s announcement), but we’re speeding that process up.

“We know we’re behind the curve, but we’re pedaling really, really fast to catch up.”

Calhoun City lies 45 miles from Blue Springs, where Toyota will build a $1.3-billion plant to assemble the Highlander sport utility vehicle. According to the Japanese automaker, the plant will eventually employ as many as 2,000 people.
Hiring could begin next year; production is slated for 2010.

Focused on suppliers

Also expected is a possible host of supplier companies locating in the area, something Denton and other area officials are watching closely. Those companies are also expected to employ approximately 2,000 people.

“I think this is going to be the best thing that happens in America this year,” predicted Joyce East, executive director of Chickasaw Development Foundation.

East said her efforts will be focused on landing second- or third-tier Toyota suppliers. Available sites include up to 1,200 acres in eastern Chickasaw County and eight tracts totaling 300 acres in the Houston area.

Many Houston residents work in Tupelo and surrounding towns, 40 miles or farther away, so East called the drive “very doable” for those who will likely land jobs with Toyota.

Also “very commutable” is Marshall County, with the county seat of Holly Springs 30-35 miles from Toyota’s site, said Del Stover. Serving as acting director of the Marshall County Industrial Development Authority, Stover noted that Marshall’s unemployment rate is approximately 10%.

“We’re already being asked about sites by state agencies and Tennessee Valley Authority,” said Stover. “They want to have an information bank.”

Besides sites in Holly Springs and Byhalia that offer ready railroad access, Stover points to the 2,600-acre Chickasaw Trail industrial site in the northern part of the county, where sites of virtually every size up to 600 acres are available.

One possible effect of the Toyota plant, according to Stover, could be accelerating construction of the Interstate 269 loop on the east side of Memphis down into Marshall County, where it will tie in with the planned Interstate 69.

“I think Toyota does nothing but help Marshall County,” said Stover, adding that the plant could precipitate a housing boom around Potts Camp in the eastern part of the county.

‘Industrial land already available’

Duane Bullard, president and CEO of the Tippah County Development Foundation, said housing construction there is already moving along at a good clip and will likely increase as Toyota begins its hiring. He noted his office in Ripley is approximately 25 miles from Toyota’s Blue Springs site.

“We’re totally in the mix,” Bullard declared. “We’re one of the few counties in the area with industrial land already available.” He said two sites in Walnut and Ripley, 400 acres each, could be especially attractive to Toyota suppliers.

“All the infrastructure — rail, water, electricity, gas and sewage — is already there,” said Bullard. “We are not limited by how quickly we can move since the county already owns the land. We can save (suppliers locating there) three to six months on the front end.”

At 35 miles from Blue Springs, Gerald Williams feels Prentiss County is well positioned to benefit from the Toyota plant. “We don’t have an abundance of buildings, but we do have sites near U.S. 45,” said the executive director of Prentiss County Development Association.

The largest site comprises 70 acres, while numerous others are in the range of 15-20 acres.

With its unemployment rate exceeding 9%, Williams figures that Prentiss offers “an ample workforce.”

Williams also reports his agency has “had a couple of calls from companies that have not identified themselves but are very possible suppliers.”

Educational assets

One of the strong points in the county seat of Booneville, said Williams, is Northeast Mississippi Community College, which “will be heavily involved in the training” of workers.

And the University of Mississippi will also be heavily involved in education revolving around Toyota, said Max Hipp, president and CEO of Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation. The college is expected to add an automotive engineering component to its degree programs.

Oxford will also be the likely site of a Saturday school to accommodate children of Toyota’s Japanese personnel. “They like to keep their children in the culture of Japan. That’s very important to them.”

Hipp is not convinced suppliers would want to be located the 40 miles from the plant where Oxford is, but he still intends to compete for them to locate there. The city itself, however, could be a draw for plant workers “who want a certain lifestyle.

“We feel our community is very desirable to live in,” said Hipp.

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