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Toyota keeps everyone waiting and watching

Car company mulls its options while riding out the poor conditions of the automotive industry

For the better part of a year, the state has waited while Toyota mulled its options regarding the plant in Blue Springs.

Late last year, the company announced that it was delaying the start of production at the facility — originally slated for 2010 — indefinitely while it tried to ride out the poor conditions of the automotive industry.

While the company still has not announced anything publicly, news broke in Japan on Dec. 3 that Toyota had decided to equip the facility to build Corolla cars, and then eventually the Prius, with the hopes of production starting in 2011. It seemed to be an early Christmas present for the state, and especially Northeast Mississippi, whose political and economic development leaders were counting on Toyota to provide jobs to those who had been employed by the region’s furniture manufacturing industry that had sent a lot of operations overseas since the turn of the century. The report seemed to make sense, too. Gov. Haley Barbour, in a press conference unveiling his executive budget recommendation on Nov. 16, said that he didn’t think it would be “long at all” before Toyota made it official that they were moving toward opening the plant.

The excitement didn’t last long, though. A Toyota spokesperson quickly denied the report on Dec. 3, and reiterated two weeks ago that “nothing had changed” regarding the status of the Blue Springs plant.

But this latest development is following a familiar pattern.

Two major shifts in plans for Blue Springs have followed the same blueprint: A non-sourced report breaks, the company and/or the state deny it, and shortly thereafter the original report is confirmed.

When Toyota announced in early 2007 that it would build the Blue Springs facility, it unleashed a tsunami of glee the state had not experienced since Nissan told the world it was coming to Canton.

Toyota originally planned to build the Highlander crossover sport utility vehicle in Blue Springs.

In the summer of 2008, the company detoured. By then, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Mississippi hovered around $4, which was still lower than the national average but was nevertheless putting a financial hurt on Mississippians. Hit especially hard were those who commuted long distances to and from their place of employment.

In the middle of the gas price crisis, all manner of alternative transportation forms were gaining popularity. Those with short commutes were spending a couple thousand dollars on scooters. Those with long commutes, and who could afford it, were snapping up hybrids.

One of the most popular hybrid models was the Toyota Prius, which debuted in the late 1990s.

So in summer 2008, news broke that Toyota was shifting its plans for Blue Springs. Instead of making the Highlander, Blue Springs would make the Prius. The same pattern emerged: Toyota and the state denied the initial report. Within days, an official announcement came. The Prius was coming to North Mississippi.

So there is legitimate reason for optimism with the report from early December. This script has been followed before. News breaks, Toyota shoots it down. Shortly after that sequence, Toyota confirms the news it originally denied.

That’s not to imply that will be the case with the latest development, just that there is precedent. It could be a year before Toyota decides to move forward at Blue Springs. It could be two years. 

The company could decide to cut its losses and abandon the project all together, though that seems unlikely with what the company would owe the state if it did that.

One thing’s for sure: The party celebrating the renewal of the project is likely to be as big as the one thrown when Toyota first chose Mississippi.

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About Clay Chandler

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