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Toyota Auto Body celebrates Lee County groundbreaking

Wooden Japanese mallets crashed into the Japanese sake cask, breaking the top into pieces. With that traditional act and the subsequent toast of the rice wine, the official groundbreaking ceremony for Toyota Auto Body ended in Baldwyn December 10.

Inside a tent on a 100-acre tract at the Harry A. Martin North Lee Industrial Park, Toyota officials joined area dignitaries and economic developers in celebrating the coming of the second major supplier of the Toyota assembly plant being constructed approximately 25 miles away in Union County.

The first announced supplier, Toyota Boshoku, upholstery and fabric component maker, is being built in Itawamba County.

“This will be a groundbreaking ceremony in broken English,” Risuke Kubochi, chairman of Toyota Auto Body (TAB), said to the delight of the crowd. In halting but comprehensible English, Kubochi said “it has been a long-cherished dream of our company” to locate a plant in the region.

The 516,000-square-foot plant, said TAB counsel Dennis Cuneo, will employ 400 and cost about $200 million to construct; it will open at the same time the main assembly plant starts up, set for 2010. The Baldwyn facility will supply stamped metal and plastic body parts for the Highlander SUVs to be made in Blue Springs.

“This will be our largest plant outside Japan,” said Kubochi.

“Today marks the beginning of our auto parts manufacturing in Mississippi,” declared Seiichi Sudo, president of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America. The body company is more than half-owned by Toyota Motor Co.

After the ceremonial digging of dirt with chrome shovels, the breaking of the cask (called kagamiwari, a mainstay of Japanese ceremony) and quaffing of wine from small ceremonial square wooden sake boxes, the gathered crowd watched Gov. Haley Barbour and Kubochi perform the Japanese traditional exchanging of gifts. Barbour received a wooden jewelry box, while Kubochi got ceramic doves.

Following the formalities, Cuneo explained that although there are other suppliers to be announced, including possibly a couple more at the TAB site to supply that enterprise with its materials, engines and transmissions will not be produced in Northeast Mississippi: “They’ll be built at other Toyota plants and shipped here.”

He pointed out that while those high-dollar, high-technology manufacturing tasks will be done elsewhere, the seats, which he says are the third most expensive vehicle components after engines and transmissions, will be built locally.

According to Cuneo, “several” suppliers are presently looking for locations within a reasonable radius of the Blue Springs plant; those Tier 1 vendors will be dedicated to supplying Toyota but Tier 2 and 3 (suppliers of the Tier 1 companies) that will surely establish presences in the region, would likely produce goods for automakers other than just Toyota.

“There are a lot of different kinds of suppliers,” said Cuneo.

Another 200 adjacent acres are available to TAB, should it decide to expand; rumors of the company’s future intent to assemble vehicles there remain rumors: “We will have no assembly at this plant for the foreseeable future,” Kubochi said on his way out of the ceremony tent.

The city of Baldwyn will benefit from the plant’s school tax assessment, set for first collection in 2011 if TAB is up and running by 2010. As much as $400,000 a year will be collected by the 900-plus-student city school district.

“Only one community can have the big assembly plant,” Barbour told the crowd during the speech period, noting that Blue Springs’ population of 165 probably makes it the smallest place Toyota ever located. “But even very small towns can have suppliers.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .


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