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Toyota’s North Mississippi juggernaut rolls into Baldwyn

The Toyota juggernaut continues remaking the Northeast Mississippi landscape, both literally and figuratively. Toyota Auto Body (TAB) announced September 25 its intention to build a plant in the northern Lee County town of Baldwyn.

Before an audience of several hundred gathered at Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Conference Center, state, local and Toyota officials described the plant that will provide metal and plastic body parts for the Toyota Highlander SUVs to be built at the sprawling, $1.3-billion Toyota assembly plant under construction in Blue Springs.

As huge machines moving millions of cubic yards of dirt continued changing the landscape at that Union County site 20 miles to the west, the latest Toyota-related announcement offered another enhancement to the economic landscape in the region.

That Blue Springs plant, announced in February, will employee 2,000 when it is completed in 2010. The $200-million body plant, called Auto Manufacturing Mississippi Inc., will employ 400 when it is completed at the same time as the assembly facility.

“One of our goals was to bring in suppliers, as well,” Gov. Haley Barbour told the crowd, referring to the Toyota recruitment effort. Barbour, who will face Democratic challenger John Eaves in the November 6 general election, has made several trips to the Tupelo area in recent weeks to announce openings of two plants and one call center.

Toyota Auto Body is 56% owned by Toyota Motor Company, said TAB president Toshio Mizushima. The company employs more than 12,000 in its worldwide operations. In Japan, TAB assembles Lexus, Prius and Land Cruiser vehicles for Toyota.

“Mississippi is actually getting two automobile manufacturers,” mused Dennis Cuneo, special counsel to Toyota Motor Company.

Barbour noted in his speech that, with the 2,000 direct Toyota employees to work at the main assembly plant and other “indirect” jobs such as the TAB positions, the northeastern Mississippi auto industry could employ nearly 5,000 people in a few years.

“We are very happy to be in Lee County, Miss., and very proud to be part of this fine community,” said Mizushima. “We are very happy to be the newest corporate citizen of the county.”

The Baldwyn site, more than 100 acres in size, Mizushima said, is perfect for his company’s needs. It is a stone’s throw to four-lane U.S. 45, a 25-minute drive from the main assembly plant and close to an alternative two-lane state highway.

In keeping with Toyota’s “on time” manufacturing processes, where parts are delivered when they’re needed as opposed to being stockpiled for future use, TAB and suppliers yet to be named must be located within a reasonable distance of the mother plant.

Baldwyn Mayor Danny Horton said “the biggest impact” of the new TAB plant on his town will likely be school taxes the firm will pay, one of the only taxes most new, large industries are not routinely exempted from paying.

One reporter asked Barbour if he expected to attend any more Toyota-related announcement events during “say, the next five or six weeks,” apparently in reference to the coming election.

“I sure hope so,” said Barbour.

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