Home » MBJ FEATURE » Toyota says no; history says yes

Toyota says no; history says yes

 

On Dec. 3, the Japanese newspaper the Nikkei reported that Toyota had made the decision to begin equipping its plant in Blue Springs with the hopes of it starting operation in the spring of 2011.

The plant, the newspaper said, would initially produce 100,000 Corolla cars annually, and would eventually make the Prius hybrid.

It was the news folks in North Mississippi had been waiting to hear for a year, since the company made it official in Dec. 2008 that it was indefinitely delaying the opening of the facility until conditions in the automotive sales market rebounded from the recession.

The report made some sense, too. It came just a few days after Gov. Haley Barbour had mentioned in a budget-related press conference that he didn’t think it would be “long at all” before Toyota made that kind of announcement.

Alas, though, the report was denied by a spokesperson for Toyota and by a representative from the Mississippi Development Authority.

So that was the end of the excitement.

But should it be?

Two major shifts in plans for Blue Springs have followed the same pattern: 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 would build the Highlander crossover sport utility vehicle in Blue Springs, and the Northeast Mississippi region that had been walloped by the shipping of furniture manufacturing jobs overseas could hang its economic hat on one of the world’s most respected — and one of the most successful —automotive companies.

In the summer of 2008, the news got even better. By then, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Mississippi hovered around $4, which, while still lower than the national average, was putting a 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 and had become the most sought-after hybrid on the market.

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.

The news wasn’t quite as big as the initial announcement that Toyota could build cars in Mississippi, but it was met with a good deal of enthusiasm because gas prices were making the fuel economy of hybrids more attractive than they had ever been.

It was the first major shift in direction for the Blue Springs facility, and one that bolstered the long-term viability of the plant.

The second came almost exactly a year ago. Speaking to media in Mexico, a Toyota executive said that the company would delay the plant’s opening from late 2010 until automotive market conditions started to show signs of life.

Randy Kelly, executive director of the Three Rivers and Planning District, the agency overseeing the construction of the facility, called the report “rumor and speculation. We have heard nothing of that nature,” he said, adding that there were no plans to stop construction of the plant, which was almost 90 percent complete at the time.

Barbour said in a statement that “Toyota has not advised the state that it will delay the start of operations at the Prius plant in Blue Springs.”

Toyota, whose own executive had started the fray, issued denials, as well.

Lo and behold, days after the executive gave his speech in Mexico, Toyota confirmed that the plant would not start production in late 2010. Instead, it was indefinitely delaying the date the first Prius would roll off the assembly line.

Again, the pattern held true: News breaks, Toyota and/or the state denies the reports, which are confirmed very shortly thereafter.

This latest development has followed the first two steps of the established pattern perfectly. The Nikkei reported on the afternoon of Dec. 3 that Toyota had seen its demand rise to the point that it needed to get Blue Springs operating as quickly as it could. Within minutes of Mississippi media picking up the story, Toyota and the MDA issued denials.

Toyota spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel told the Mississippi Business Journal in an e-mail Dec. 8 that “nothing has changed regarding the status of the Mississippi project.”

Sound familiar?

 

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015.

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