Swoope: Miss. will be aggressive for Toyota suppliers

Published 5:03 pm Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mississippi will aggressively develop its auto manufacturing industry in the north and central parts of the state while continuing to focus on coastal recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the state economic director says.

During a conference call with business people Tuesday, Mississippi Development Authority director Gray Swoope said a Toyota assembly plant that’s coming to the north Mississippi town of Blue Springs could attract dozens of suppliers.

The plant, set to open in 2010, will manufacture the Highlander sport utility vehicle. It will employ about 2,000 people.

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The Toyota plant will be Mississippi’s second auto manufacturing site. A Nissan plant opened near Canton in 2003 and has about 4,000 workers and attracted a number of large suppliers to the region.

The Blue Springs site near Tupelo is within driving distance for potential employees who live in Tennessee or Alabama, and some suppliers might consider going to those states.

“We’re going to be as aggressive as possible to put every one of those suppliers in the state of Mississippi,” Swoope said during the conference call sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council, a state chamber of commerce.

Swoope became director of MDA in January, moving up after the retirement of Leland Speed. Swoope had been second in command at the agency since 2004, when Republican Haley Barbour became governor.

MEC president Blake Wilson said he believes Swoope brings “a dedication to this job that is, we believe, unmatched” among economic directors in competing states.

Swoope said Tuesday that more than 85 percent of the state’s coastal homeowners who qualified for the first phase of Hurricane Katrina recovery grants have received their money.

He said $843 million has been distributed among 12,983 homeowners in the first phase of the program. He said 14,930 were eligible.

The first phase of the program provides federal grants of up to $150,000 to people whose homes were destroyed by the storm on Aug. 29, 2005. The homes had to be insured and they had to be outside what was then the federally designated flood zone.

Officials are still working on the second phase of a grant program for low- and moderate-income people whose homes were damaged by flooding or storm surge. Grants of up to $100,000 are available to homeowners who were uninsured or underinsured.

Swoope said MDA is trying to work with a sense of urgency to distribute the grants to people who are trying to get their lives back on track more than 19 months after Katrina.

“These are our co-workers, they’re our friends, and even in some cases like myself, it’s our family,” Swoope said.

He said he realizes the pace of distributing the grants is frustratingly slow for some people.

“If I’m sitting in a FEMA trailer, that’s still not quick enough for me,” Swoope said. “But we’re doing everything we can to get that money out.”