Miss. lawmakers expected to vote on Toyota package Friday

Published 4:49 pm Friday, March 2, 2007

Gov. Haley Barbour says he hopes lawmakers will act swiftly Friday to approve a $323.9 million incentive package to lock in plans to bring a Toyota plant to northeast Mississippi.

State and company officials announced on Tuesday that the 1,700-acre site near Tupelo had been chosen over competing sites in Marion, Ark., and Chattanooga, Tenn. The $1.3 billion plant will produce Toyota’s new Highlander sport utility vehicle starting in 2010, and company officials say it will have 2,000 jobs, with assembly line positions paying about $20 an hour.

Mississippi’s incentive package includes $293.9 million for Toyota, much of which will cover costs for infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer lines. Barbour said it also has $30 million for top-tier Toyota suppliers.

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The governor said he’s confident that lawmakers will not slow down work on the package by trying to attach millions of dollars for unrelated projects in their home districts.

“This is the most important economic development project in the United States this year,” Barbour said. “And I don’t think anybody wants to jeopardize the chances of it actually happening.”

Barbour said the package will be handled as part of the regular legislative session. Earlier in the week, he had said he probably would call a special session within the regular session — a move that would allow the governor to more closely control the discussion of the package.

Some lawmakers from the impoverished Delta area have expressed concerns that the Toyota plant might not help their constituents. House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, who has been working behind the scenes with Barbour and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, tried to assure the Delta representatives that the Toyota plant should boost the entire state economy.

“There are no tricks here,” McCoy said Thursday. “It’s all for the benefit of the state of Mississippi.”

Barbour said Tuesday that Mississippi officials showed Toyota potential industrial sites in Tunica and Como in the northern Delta, 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.

Barbour said he’s confident lawmakers will finish working on the incentive package by Friday.

In 2000, when Ronnie Musgrove was governor, Mississippi gave Nissan a $363 million incentive package to lure 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.

Barbour, a Republican who defeated Democrat Musgrove four years ago, said Thursday that the Nissan package did not include incentives for suppliers. He said the current plan to approve up to $30 million for Toyota suppliers “will make it even more attractive for Toyota suppliers to locate facilities in Mississippi.”

About 1,500 people packed into a Tupelo High School auditorium Tuesday to watch officials announce Toyota’s selection of Mississippi as the site for the company’s eighth vehicle assembly plan in North America — part of a growing pattern of auto companies choosing sites in the South.

The new plant will be built on a 1,700-acre site at Blue Springs, several miles northwest of Tupelo. The site is mostly privately owned forest land now. Construction is expected to begin this fall.

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

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

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.