The two Japanese automakers said earlier this month they plan to build the plant, which will build the Toyota Corolla and future Mazda crossover vehicles, by 2021. The facility, which requires at least 1,000 acres upon which to build, will employ up to 4,000 workers.

The Wall Street Journal named 11 states on what it says is a short list of top candidates for the site: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Toyota and Mazda officials say the process to choose the site is in its early stages, but the Wall Street Journal says a team of brokers from Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle has been working for six months on the project. JLL also represented Toyota in its headquarters relocation to Plano, Texas, from Kentucky.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said the state was ready to grow its existing partnership with Toyota, as the automaker already employs 2,000 people at its plant in Blue Springs, which already builds the Corolla.

Mike Randle, the publisher of Southern Business & Development and an affiliate website, SouthernAutoCorridor.com, has an impressive track record in identifying which sites automakers will choose.

“I think the search will be site-specific since there are several certified megasites where Toyota already has plants nearby,” he said.

Randle says he doesn’t have any inside information on the leading candidates to land the plant, but he said three sites come immediately to mind:

  • The Glendale megasite in Hardin County, Kentucky covers 1,550 acres. Toyota built its first North American plant more than 30 years ago in Georgetown, Kentucky. At 8 million square feet, it is Toyota’s largest plant, and it employs 8,000 workers.
  • The 4,100-acre Memphis Regional Megasite is close to two companies in Jackson, Tennessee, with ties to Toyota: Bodine Aluminum makes aluminum cast parts for Toyota engines, while TBDN is a joint venture between Toyota Boshoku and Denso Corp. that makes air filter elements, cabin air filters, air induction systems, oil filters and fuel system filters and components for the automotive industry. Tennessee also has spent $106 million in infrastructure upgrades to the site.
  • The 1,252-acre Limestone County Megasite is near Huntsville, Alabama, where Toyota already employs 1,500 people at an engine plant.

“If you look at Toyota’s base, their suppliers stretch from Indiana to Mississippi,” he said. “That puts Tennessee in play, Kentucky in play, Alabama in play and even Mississippi.”

Randle hasn’t ruled out Mississippi, where the Blue Springs plant opened six years ago. The 2 million-square-foot plant, which began production six years ago, sits on a 1,700-acre site that already has a pad built to match the current plant’s design.

“What you have there isn’t an underperforming plant, but it is one of the smallest plants in the South,” said Randle, noting that Toyota Mississippi makes less than 200,000 cars a year. “Most plants make 300,000 to 350,000 vehicles a year, and most plants have two or more models. So they could be possibly thinking about adding on to that plant.”

AUTO INDUSTRY IMPACT

Of the 11 states on the supposed short list for the new plant, Mississippi has the smallest population. But the automotive industry plays a significant role in the state’s economy.

Research done by the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center at Mississippi State University, or NSPARC, shows that more than 18,000 workers across the state work directly in the automotive sector, with employment growing 64 percent between 2010 and 2016. And for every auto industry job, another two are created elsewhere, which means some 55,000 jobs have been created by the sector.

The study also found that automotive-related industries are in 32 counties across the state. The average salary is $50,150, more than 1.34 times greater than the state average of $37,642. In total, the auto industry accounts for an estimated $5.7 billion of the state’s GDP.

Mississippi could very well have the inside track for getting the plant, but other states will be making a hard push for it.

For example:

• Brenna Smith, a spokeswoman for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, told the Des Moines Register that the Iowa Economic Development Authority has shared “the benefits of an Iowa location” with Toyota.

“It’s a great opportunity and we obviously have reached out and will continue to talk about the benefits of an Iowa location,” said Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the IEDCA “Beyond that, there’s not much else I can say at this point.”

• According to the Chicago Tribune, Illinois’ connection to Toyota is the Chicago-based JLL firm representing the Toyota-Mazda venture in its site selection. Another connection is that Toyota Motor North America’s CEO, James Lentz, is a native of the state.

While Illinois has advantages such as its transportation infrastructure, central location and large workforce, “the state is also hindered by political dysfunction and financial woes,” the paper said.

It also noted the state’s largest jobs incentives program – Economic Development for a Growing Economy, or EDGE, tax credits – expired earlier this year with no new legislation passed to replace it.

• Alabama’s automotive sector employs more than 57,000, with 25,000 jobs in the automotive supplier chains among more than 160 companies, according to AL.com.

FINDING THE LABOR

Perhaps a disadvantage for Mississippi is an available workforce. Unemployment is near historic lows, and the state already is home to two major automakers in Nissan and Toyota. Can the Magnolia State accommodate another auto plant employing 4,000 workers, especially with larger states having two times or more population?

Randle said every state faces a tough labor market situation.

“Nobody has the workforce,” Randle countered. “That’s the biggest issue right now. Think about how many people are sitting on the sidelines because they can’t pass drug tests. I look at the numbers, and I’m not sure any place can backfill 3,000 or 4,000 workers for 10-15 years anywhere in the South. We may be able to find them in the beginning, but backfilling them is the problem.”

Randle said a dwindling labor pool also is a concern. He said for the past four or five decades, some 200,000 people become eligible for work each month. However, as the U.S. population ages and younger workers are delaying or having fewer children, that available workforce is shrinking.

“The last three years, we’re only getting about 70,000 eligible workers per month,” he said. “And that’s going to drop to 40,000 or 50,000 a month over the next 15 years. So we have to do one of two things: accept lower growth or embrace immigration. So when you talk about a plant with 4,000 people, you start looking around and ask, ‘where are we going to find them all?’”

Labor issues aside, perhaps one of the biggest factors in determining where the plant will land is the amount of incentives states will offer.

Mississippi offered $378 million to Nissan in the early 2000s, while Toyota got $294 million. Those numbers pale in comparison to what might be needed for the Toyota-Mazda venture.

“We’re talking $500 million minimum,” Randle said. “But, you have to consider the wages that will be paid and the economic impact. It could generate $250 million or more in wages per year, and you have to put that in perspective.”

dennis.seid@journalinc.com Twitter: @dennisseid