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Standing ovations, thunderous applause from crowd

TUPELO — Students of all ages received a $1.3-billion lesson in economic development on the campus of Tupelo High School last week as officials with Toyota Motor Corp. announced plans to build the company’s next North American vehicle assembly plant at the Wellspring Project megasite near Blue Springs. The 1,700-acre site near Lee, Union and Pontotoc counties is about 10 miles outside of Tupelo.

“We in Mississippi and especially North Mississippi are excited to have been chosen by Toyota as its partner,” said a beaming Gov. Haley Barbour, surrounded by Toyota executives and a host of elected officials, dignitaries and a capacity crowd at the THS Performing Arts Center. “Toyota is the world’s premier auto manufacturer and our state will be the best partner the company has.”

The new plant, which will manufacture Toyota’s popular Highlander sport utility vehicle, is expected to create approximately 2,000 new jobs for the region and production is scheduled to begin by 2010. It will have the capacity to build 150,000 vehicles annually and operations at the plant will include stamping, body weld, plastics, paint and assembly. Site preparation for the plant is scheduled to begin later this spring and officials stated that a majority of the hiring will take place closer to the start of vehicle production. Officials estimate that another 2,000 construction jobs will be created to build the facility. The $1.3-billion investment by Toyota does not include the state incentive package.

The event, which drew a series of standing ovations with thunderous applause, reinforced themes of regional cooperation, educational partnership and commitment to a strong work ethic. Private and public-sector advocates of the project were lauded for their efforts. Several of the standing ovations were given when Barbour recognized the efforts of groups such as the Community Development Foundation; Three Rivers Planning and Development District; the PUL Alliance; and local officials in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties. The governor reiterated the importance of our congressional delegation, state and local leaders and university/community college leaders in this type of initiative.

“North Mississippi has a strong, productive workforce, and the selection of this site is a tribute to those outstanding workers,” Barbour said. “We’re every bit as committed to the success of this facility as Toyota is.”

Toyota officials noted that several factors led to the decision to build in Mississippi over other proposed sites. Toyota executive vice presidents Ray Tanguay and Gary Convis noted the area’s strong work ethic and commitment to education.

“On my visits to northern Mississippi, I have talked with area companies and observed their work force,” Tanguay said. “What I observed were people who are educated, ethical and friendly with a strong work ethic — a perfect match for the Toyota way.”

Noting the high praise that existing companies had for employees, Tanguay said, “They were definitely the best sales people.” v
Convis acknowledged that the competition was tough among the states that vied for Toyota’s presence. But he lauded the tenacity and salesmanship of Gov. Barbour and all of the economic development officials that worked to promote the Wellspring site.

“Gov. Barbour and the regional economic development team were very convincing and unrelenting in their efforts to showcase the area’s advantages,” Convis noted. “The team that was assembled to put together information when we needed it was outstanding. The warmth and sincerity of the people of Mississippi stood out and we are thrilled to be on your team.”

Top of mind for several area residents was the issue of jobs. Officials stated that they did not anticipate hiring for a majority of positions until closer to vehicle production. Tanguay said that engineers, upper management, maintenance and subsequently factory floor and assembly-line operators will be needed. He estimated that some positions would be around $20 per hour with benefits packages. Anticipating questions about contractors, Toyota officials stated that they will choose from a group of firms that the company has worked with in the past to head up the effort, and that the company would hold a fair for subcontractors who are interested in offering their services.

Educators in the audience received another piece of good news when it was announced by Barbour that Toyota plans to donate $50 million to the schools of Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties. “These 10 annual gifts of $5 million each will improve already outstanding school systems for the benefit of the children of Toyota’s initial workforce and will also help the workforce of this facility for many years to come,” Barbour added.With the Wellspring announcement, Toyota’s investment in North America is valued at nearly $19 billion. In 2009, Toyota will have the annual capacity to build approximately 2.16 million cars and trucks, 1.45 million engines and 600,000 automatic transmissions in 15 plants across North America.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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