Toyota plant in Blue Springs finally making Corollas after starts, stops and changes

BLUE SPRINGS — A year ago, Tereda Hairston was a third grade reading teacher in Starkville.

Toyota production team members wave after driving the first manufactured Corolla in Mississippi onto the stage during a ceremony that marks teh production start at Toyota Motor Corporation's auto manufacturing plant in Blue Springs, Miss., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Today, the 32-year-old is a quality check specialist at the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, having started there in July.

“I absolutely love it,” Hairston said. “I applied here because I knew what Toyota was about. It’s stable. It’s not going anywhere. This plant is going to grow, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Hairston is one of about 1,700 people who work under the massive roof of the Toyota complex off Highway 78 that builds the best-selling compact Corolla sedan.


The facility held a “line-off” ceremony Thursday to celebrate what amounted to a delayed grand opening. The star of the show was a black Corolla that was built on Oct. 24, when production started. It will reside in the lobby of the building.

The event, which brought political and economic development leaders from around the state, was the culmination of a seven-year pursuit, said Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour said the first contact he made with Toyota officials came in New York in 2004. That relationship developed to the point that, in 2007, the company announced that it would build its 10th U.S. manufacturing facility in Blue Springs.

The ensuing four years haven’t necessarily been smooth sailing, though.

The project endured three significant setbacks after plans were first unveiled.

The first was in summer 2008, when rumors started swirling that Blue Springs would produce the Prius gas-electric hybrid hatchback sedan 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. At the time of the announcement, the average price for a gallon of gasoline was over $4. Toyota had pinned its hopes 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 Blue Springs, which was then 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. Eventually, the rumor became reality.

Then in summer 2010, it was announced that Toyota would build the best-selling Corolla, and that the plant would open in fall 2011. The edict validated what state and local economic development officials had said throughout the delays: that Toyota had said it was committed to Blue Springs, and the facility would open as soon as it made financial sense to do so.

“Today is the right time,” Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda told gathered media at a press conference Thursday morning. Channeling Tupelo native Elvis Presley, Toyoda added, “only fools rush in.”

Barbour insisted that he never allowed himself to think the project was doomed in the midst of an agonizing delay.

“It was always a question of when it would open,” he said. “Candidly, I felt better that they were thinking long-term. This is a plant that we want to be here 75 years from now.”

Chances are good that could be the case, if current sales trends continue. The Corolla outsold every car and truck of every class the past few years, averaging about 25,000 sold per month, according to industry figures.

David Copenhaver, VP of production and administration support for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi, said the facility has ramped up production to around 38 cars a day, and had built a total of 550 since Oct. 24 as of Nov. 17. Maximum output, he said, is 600 cars per day.

The plant will supply 2,000 direct jobs to the area once all positions are filled, with supplier and spinoff jobs expected to push that total above 4,000. State incentives accounted for about $340 million of the $800 million total investment in the two million square-foot complex and the surrounding infrastructure.

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