Six years ago, the first vehicle at Canton’s Nissan plant rolled off the assembly line and started a drive toward Mississippi becoming a major player in the southeastern automotive manufacturing industry.
May 2003 marked the culmination of years of effort by government and economic development officials to lure the massive project that was deemed the U.S.’ crown jewel of economic development when it was awarded in 2000.
Since its opening, the plant has directly created thousands of jobs and had a significant role in creating thousands of others.
“It’s been everything we had hoped for, with the exception that nobody predicted the economic downturn in the automotive industry here in the last number of months,” said Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership. Foreign automakers have fared a little better than their domestic competitors in the current recession.
“Other than that, we saw the amount of suppliers moving into the area and the state and what Nissan was contributing to the economy,” O’Neill said. “I think it was right on track (with what we expected).”
Nissan began earlier this year constructing a new phase of the plant, one that will eventually produce light commercial vehicles (LCV). With auto sales plummeting, the LCV market being slightly more insulated from the recession than the car and truck market has the potential to provide a significant boost to the plant.
“We should see the added benefits (commercial vehicles) of some of the suppliers picking back up or new suppliers to replace the ones that have gone out of business or left here in the next few months,” O’Neill said. “I think that’s going to be a great line for them, but it’s nice to have it here. We had the hottest-selling car, the Altima (produced in Canton). You like to have the best of what the industry has to offer, so I think that will be very positive for this area. (The recession) still bites everybody in the industry, but I still think we’re in pretty good shape with Nissan being the horse that we’re riding.”
Mississippi Manufacturers Association president and CEO Jay Moon was with the Mississippi Development Authority during the wooing of Nissan.
“We were just thrilled to have a company of their caliber and standing (build a facility in Mississippi),” he said. “There were a lot of comparisons to the Mercedes plant in Alabama, but the Nissan plant was far and away much larger, in terms of the number of vehicles they were going to produce and the workforce. In terms of a new auto manufacturing facility, it was one of the biggest ever built initially in the United States.”
The majority of automotive manufacturing facilities do not expand until it has been operational for at least a year or two. The Nissan plan grew in size before the main facility was finished.
“Nissan came out of the ground big,” Moon said. “Everything about the Nissan facility was much bigger than the typical auto or truck manufacturing facility that you would see developed anywhere. Not only did we get a world-class company, we also got one of the largest start-up auto and truck manufacturing facilities ever built in the United States just right out of the ground. We didn’t have to wait for it to expand.”
During construction, the wettest spring on record the early part of this decade jeopardized key deadlines being met. They were eventually reached on time, which works wonders for the state and its reputation, Moon said, of keeping promised made to companies that locate here.
“I have to believe that that really helped us in bringing suppliers and it had to have some impact on our ability to bring Toyota here. It’s like anything else. You make commitments and you fulfill them. That’s an important thing when people in the business world are looking at time and money and making sure they get their products to market.”
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