Miss. governor travels to Japan to meet with auto suppliers

Published 6:40 pm Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Gov. Haley Barbour is in Japan this week to try to lure automotive suppliers to Mississippi.

He says the northern part of the state should be an attractive location for companies that want to make parts for auto assembly plants in the region.

Toyota is scheduled to open its new North American manufacturing plant in 2010 in the tiny northeast Mississippi town of Blue Springs, near Tupelo. Nissan opened a plant in 2003 near Canton in central Mississippi.

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Alabama has a Hyundai plant near Montgomery, a Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa and a Honda plant near Anniston. Tennessee has a Nissan plant at Smyrna.

Barbour said the facilities in the three states form a box on the map.

“Suppliers can come and locate in that box, most of which is in north Mississippi and east Mississippi, and they can instead of being captive to a company, they can come in and try to sell to six plants and five different companies,” Barbour said recently. “And so investing 50 or 60 or 100 million dollars in a facility makes a whole lot more sense than if you’re just going to try to sell Nissan or if you’re just going to try to sell Mercedes Benz.”

Mark Van Boening, interim chairman of the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Mississippi, said the auto manufacturing industry has reached “a critical mass” in the Southeast.

He said Barbour’s pitch to auto suppliers makes sense — that they could build in one central location to have access to several plants.

“It lowers transportation and transaction costs,” Van Boening said Monday.

Barbour and others left Monday for the five-day trip. It is his third journey to Japan since he became governor in January 2004. The group is set to return Friday.

On Thursday, Barbour and officials from the Mississippi Development Authority will conduct an “Invest in Mississippi” seminar in Nagoya. The delegation also will have meetings with other companies. Barbour said Toyota helped arrange the trip.

Also participating in the trade trip are MDA executive director Gray Swoope; Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo, chairman of the Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development; and Dennis Cuneo, counsel for Arent Fox LLP.

Cuneo is a former Toyota senior vice president and worked as a consultant to help the company choose the site for its new North American assembly plant. Officials announced in February that the plant will be built in Mississippi.

The Toyota plant will have 2,000 jobs and will produce the Highland sport utility vehicle.

The Nissan plant in Mississippi opened when Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was governor. It has about 4,000 employees who manufacture the Titan pickup, the Armada SUV, the Altima sedan and the Infiniti QX56 luxury SUV.

Swoope said Barbour and others have worked hard to build a strong economic relationship with Japan. He said that with the seminar on Thursday, “we want to build on those ties by highlighting the benefits our state can offer Japanese investors.”

Barbour, a Republican who is seeking re-election this year, said in a news release Monday: “I intend to showcase all of the reasons that make Mississippi a solid investment for Japanese companies.”