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Prius or no Prius?

Lacy Luckett would like everybody to know that she does not work in Georgetown, Ky. She still works in Tupelo.

Luckett’s work residence came into doubt last week when the Web site Automotive News quoted a Toyota executive as saying that the 120 employees who were originally assigned to the Blue Springs plant had been transferred to the company’s Georgetown facility while the company debates the target date for production to start in North Mississippi.

“I’m not in Georgetown,” Luckett, the spokesperson for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi, said laughing. “I’m still in Tupelo.”

Steve St. Angelo, senior vice president of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, told a conference in Birmingham last week that, along with the Mississippi employees being transferred to Kentucky, the Blue Springs plant would eventually make a Toyota vehicle. It just might not be the Prius hybrid.

“We’re looking at our whole portfolio and asking which products it makes sense to build or not build in North America,” Automotive News quoted him as saying.

That was news to Luckett, too. “We’re proceeding as if we are going to build the Prius,” she said.

This is the third significant signal Toyota has sent that relates to significant changes at Blue Springs since the company announced in early 2007 that it was coming to Mississippi.

The first was last year about this time, when rumors started swirling that Blue Springs would produce the Prius instead of the Highlander crossover sport-utility vehicle. After several rounds of denials and non-denials, that rumor eventually proved true. It was met with great enthusiasm from state and local economic development folks, who saw it as something that would make the plant more viable long-term. Toyota is counting on the Prius to lead the charge back toward profitability.

The second major shift in plans surfaced late in 2008, as the national and global economies spiraled. Toyota, went the second rumor, was considering indefinitely delaying the opening of the Blue Springs plant, which was supposed to come online in fall 2010. The rumor gained traction when a Toyota executive told media in Mexico that such a delay was a possibility. Again, after several rounds of denials and non-denials, the rumor became reality. Unlike the Prius revelation, this one was not greeted with any enthusiasm at all.

Now comes the potential shift from the Prius to another Toyota model. This latest revelation is following the same pattern as the other two. On Wednesday, Buddy Bynum, communications director for Gov. Haley Barbour, said in a statement that Toyota officials told Barbour’s office they had “no intention of building anything at Blue Springs other than the Prius.”

That is strikingly similar to statements associated with the change to the Prius from the Highlander and the rhetoric surrounding the indefinite delay in production.

What does this mean? Even though there is precedent, it’s hard to tell.

What is certain is that Toyota has said since it announced that Blue Springs’ opening was pushed back that it would finish the construction of the facility’s shell – it’s over 90 percent complete – but would not install equipment until a firm production date had been determined.

Such a move leaves the door open for Toyota to eventually make any of its vehicles in Blue Springs. If company officials had decided to go ahead and stock the facility with equipment to make the Prius while it waits for market conditions to improve, that would pretty much lock Mississippi into the hybrid business. Changing equipment at automotive manufacturing facilities is extremely expensive.

St. Angelo, the Toyota exec who spoke in Birmingham, said in the same story the company remains “extremely committed” to Blue Springs.

That’s a good sign. After all the effort to woo Toyota, it’s doubtful anybody would care if the Prius or motorized skateboards rolled off the Blue Springs lines, as long as the agreed-to job creation numbers and other financial obligations were met.

There is definitely smoke. We’ll find out soon enough whether there’s any fire behind it.

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