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Standing ovation as Toyota breaks ground

Cue the crane to raise the digital video screen. Cue the excavators raising their buckets to frame the screen. Cue the broadcast of “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

No cue was needed for the standing ovation, yelling, whistles and cheers from the hundreds attending Toyota Mississippi’s groundbreaking April 18.

Champagne poppers, firework confetti shooters fired by that audience, were the closest thing to a champagne toast during the Union County ceremony for the new Toyota assembly plant.

A champagne toast, of course, would have been illegal in the dry county. Being unable to toast the event, however, didn’t seem to dampen the festivities as Toyota, state and local officials congratulated each other on a job well done in an extravagant production that included performances by a jazz combo, a drum group and two gospel quartets.

Under gray skies and white tents, 600 invited guests shared plates of barbecue pork with sides of predictions, pronouncements and promises of prosperity. Those tents were pitched on hundreds of acres of rolling hills north of Blue Springs (pop. 165) bared down to the red dirt, scraped clean of trees and other vegetation.

“Blue Springs is very beautiful, and your people are very gracious,” Katsuaki Watanabe, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, read from a script in halting English. He said the April 18 trip marked his first time in Mississippi, where he found the unofficial motto “The Hospitality State” is a fitting description.

Watanabe explained that Toyota will produce its Highlander SUV, one of which shared the stage with him and other speakers, at the Toyota Mississippi plant beginning in 2010. Nearly $1.3 billion will be spent on the project before the first vehicle rolls off the line. Toyota predicts 150,000 Highlanders will be built each year by the 2,000 “team members,” as the company calls its employees.

Once the plant opens, noted Watanabe, the 70-year-old Japanese company will have a total of 15 U.S. plants, eight of which are assembly facilities. Production should reach 2.2 million vehicles per year.

‘Marriage of futures’

Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, called the venture “a marriage of futures.” He added that the automaker wants to help put Northeast Mississippi at the forefront of global competition.

“When I got off the plane yesterday,” Press declared, “it felt right.

“We’re convinced this is the place to be.”

Toyota, according to Real “Ray” Tanguay, the company’s managing officer, plans to put its money where its mouth is. “Toyota will give $5 million a year over 10 years to the

CREATE foundation to further enhance education in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties.”
CREATE is a Tupelo-based community foundation that serves, in part, as a funding conduit for charitable organizations like United Way. How the Toyota monies, which Tanguay said would be initiated about the same time the plant construction is complete and SUVs are rolling off the line, are split among the approximately seven public school districts will be determined at a later date.

The three counties were named to receive the money because they formed the Pontotoc-Union-Lee Alliance (PUL) that negotiated with Toyota to select the 1,700-acre Wellspring Project, located on the southern side of U.S. 78 approximately 10 miles west of Tupelo.

The PUL Alliance also lobbied the Mississippi Legislature for a package of state incentives that, along with local incentives will exceed $300 million.

“The Legislature took a full three hours to pass this package,” Gov. Haley Barbour said to the cheering crowd. “We formally worked on this a year but we’ve been working on it three years.”

‘There is nothing but good news’

Following videotaped presentations by U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker and U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, officials thrust shiny ceremonial shovels into a long pile of dirt in the middle of the stage.

Then folks queued up for a barbecue lunch in an adjacent tent. In what may be the first collaborative concession to the three counties’ participation in the project, three different caterers, one from each of the counties, provided the food.

Watanabe, with a translator at his side, and Barbour spent much of lunchtime in front of television cameras and with journalists, answering questions for reporters from local and national news outlets.

“There is nothing but good news,” said Barbour. “This is the number one economic development project in the United States this year. I believe this makes critical mass for North Mississippi.”


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