Miss. lawmakers expected to act quickly on Toyota incentive package

Published 7:42 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2007

State lawmakers will meet in special session in the next few days to consider a $296 million incentive package to bring a Toyota Motor Corp. assembly plant to a site in the rolling hills northeast Mississippi.

Company executives, Gov. Haley Barbour and other officials announced Tuesday that Toyota selected the northeast Mississippi site over sites near Marion, Ark., and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Barbour said lawyers are putting finishing touches on the package before bringing it to the Legislature. He said he hopes the special session will be short.

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“We want to get the site ready very, very quickly because we want them to be able to get on the site this spring so that they can start their construction, we hope, by fall,” Barbour said.

The special session is being held in the midst of lawmakers’ regular three-month session. In a special session, the governor controls the agenda. That puts a tighter lid on subjects that could be debated and prevents lawmakers from adding pet projects that could delay the Toyota package.

Toyota’s new Highlander sport utility vehicle should start rolling off the assembly line at a new, $1.3 billion plant in northeast Mississippi by 2010, company and state officials said Tuesday.

Toyota’s eighth vehicle assembly plant in North America will be built on a mostly wooded 1,700-acre site at Blue Springs, about 10 miles northwest of Tupelo.

Tupelo is perhaps best known around the world as the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

The Mississippi plant will manufacture 150,000 Highlanders a year. It also will create 2,000 badly needed jobs in an area with an economy that has slowed because of losses in furniture manufacturing positions.

Mississippi officials courted Toyota for 2 1/2 years, mostly out of the public eye.

“As Elvis would say, ‘Only fools rush in,’” Ray Tanguay, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America Inc., said during the company’s announcement at Tupelo High School.

Jim Press, president of Toyota North America, spoke from Washington, and his image was projected onto screens to an audience of 1,500 at the school auditorium. He picked up on the Elvis theme. “I guess it’s ‘Don’t step on my Blue Springs shoes,’” Press said, prompting applause and laughter.

Toyota officials said the company chose to go to northeast Mississippi because they liked what they saw of the education levels and work ethic of potential employees.

Jim Wiseman, vice president of external affairs for Toyota North America, said more than 25 states sought the plant and Tennessee and Arkansas had “excellent sites.”

“You can’t choose everybody,” Wiseman said.

Officials in Arkansas and Tennessee officials sought to put the best face on finishing out of the money.

“Finishing second is not bad,” Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said of Tuesday’s announcement. “The important thing is the forward momentum has not stopped and will not stop.”

Matt Kisber, Tennessee’s commissioner of economic and community development, was informed one day earlier by Toyota executives that they had picked another site. He said Gov. Phil Bredesen made numerous trips and attended meetings with Toyota officials in leading an all-out effort.

In Arkansas, Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman said he was disappointed his town won’t host Toyota. However, Fogleman said he was talking with state economic development officials about other auto companies and other industries that may be interested in building in the region.

“We’re not going to sit around and mope and be depressed,” Fogleman said. “We’re going to get busy and move forward.”

The Mississippi site is mostly privately owned forest land now. Construction is expected to begin this fall, and the first vehicles are set to roll off the assembly line in three years.

Press said Mississippi is offering the company a $296 million incentive package. That’s less than the $363 million package Mississippi gave Nissan in 2000 to attract the state’s first auto manufacturing plant.

The Nissan plant opened in 2003 near Canton, about 25 miles north of Jackson and nearly 200 miles south of the Toyota site. The Nissan plant employs about 4,000 people and produced 278,000 vehicles last year.

Toyota already has vehicle assembly plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Also, the company will start producing Camrys at a Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind. Toyota also has four engine plants in North America.

Barbour said Mississippi officials showed Toyota potential industrial sites near Tunica and Como in the north, near Meridian in the east and near Tupelo. He said company officials chose the site near Tupelo last summer, while still considering sites in other states.

Press said he met with Barbour and discussed Mississippi’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which left a broad swath of destruction across the southern part of the state when it blew ashore 18 months ago.

“He described to me the character and the resiliency of the folks who were involved in the Katrina disaster and it showed a strength of character where they came together and helped each other in a way that obviously makes the work force very desirable,” Press said.

The opening of a new auto plant can be a big boon to the local economy. The new Toyota Tundra plant in San Antonio, Texas, brought 2,000 jobs with the 2.2 million square-foot manufacturing plant. Twenty-one onsite suppliers brought an additional 2,000 jobs.

With an estimated total investment of nearly $1.6 billion, Toyota has been “a very positive influence,” said San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.