BLUE SPRINGS – For 549 days, Northeast Mississippians waited.
On Thursday their patience paid off.
Early Thursday morning, while most Mississippians slept, Toyota Motor Co.’s board of directors gave the go-ahead to get Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi up and running at full speed.
“For the past 18 months, it’s not been a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when,’” said David Copenhaver, vice president of administration of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi. “The ‘when’ is today.”
And by the fall of 2011, Toyota said Thursday, TMMMS will be rolling out the Japanese automaker’s popular Corolla compact sedan. The Corolla is the world’s best-selling car of all time with some 33 million sold, and the company’s second-best selling car in the U.S.
Thursday’s announcement of the closely guarded decision was made in front of a standing-room-only crowd of about 900 people, most of whom started getting invitations at 7 a.m.
After officials unveiled a sign reading “Moving Forward Again,” the crowd – which gave at least 10 standing ovations – cheered heartily as red and white balloons drifted down from the ceiling.
The event represented the latest major turn in Toyota’s Blue Springs project, dating back to February 2007 when the automaker unveiled its plans in Tupelo.
TMMMS was originally set to build the Highlander SUV, beginning this year, but Toyota changed it to the Prius hybrid in July 2008.
However, citing the global economic downturn, Toyota announced in mid-December 2008 that it was indefinitely delaying the opening of the plant.
Gov. Haley Barbour was the first to get the latest welcome news with a 6 a.m. long-distance wakeup call Thursday from Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda, who told him that the project had been given the green light again.
“This is the premier automaker in the world and the top-selling vehicle – there’s no better combination than that,” said Barbour.
Company officials say they are confident that the economy is improving and that vehicle demand will improve.
After delaying TMMMS’ opening for a year and a half and reviewing its capacity needs, Toyota felt there was no better time than the present to get the Corolla built in the U.S. again.
On April 1, after 24 years of building the vehicle at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif., it ran in a joint venture with General Motors, Toyota stopped production of the Corolla there.
After GM had filed for bankrupcty protection in 2009, the Detroit automaker withdrew its ownership in the plant. Toyota said it could not run the plant efficiently by itself and opted to close it.
Corolla production then was shifted to Toyota plants in Canada and Japan.
But in a little more than a year, the Corolla will be made again in the U.S.
“Now it’s time to fulfill Toyota’s promise in Mississippi,” said Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America. “It is indeed a great day for Mississippi and Toyota. By starting production of Corolla, we’re able to get Toyota Mississippi back to work faster and we’re also able to get Corolla production back to the U.S. as soon as possible.”
The plant is mostly finished, with installation of equipment and the hiring of production workers the next big steps. Equipment has already started arriving; hiring won’t begin until later this year.
Rumors had swirled for months that Toyota would resume work at TMMMS as early as this year. Company officials said the talk was premature.
But even as auto sales plummeted during the Great Recession and Toyota earlier this year was battered by the recall of more than 8 million cars worldwide, state and local officials said they never lost hope – or faith – that the automaker would come through.
The company already had invested $300 million in TMMMS, and the state was on the hook for $184 million – and counting – but there were some fears that the automaker would “walk away” from the plant.
Those fears, as it turned out, were unjustified.
“I never doubted them,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “I’ve had the privilege of working with Gov. Barbour and watching him build that relationship with Toyota. I’ve had the opportunity to see them work side by side. There was never a time where we thought that this wouldn’t happen.”
But while Mississippi celebrated, the United Auto Workers union criticized the move. UAW President Bob King said Toyota had chosen Mississippi “just to get lower wages and benefits” rather than keeping production at the union-operated NUMMI plant.
Steve St. Angelo, who serves a dual role as president of TMMMS as well as Toyota Kentucky and is a senior vice president with Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, said it wasn’t Toyota’s fault it had to close NUMMI.
“When GM abandoned it, it was really a hard decision for us to make,” he said. “But it wasn’t financially feasible for us to go alone at NUMMI. The most important thing to remember is that we’re bringing 2,000 jobs here.”
And Barbour said that at least another 2,000 supplier-related jobs would be created.
Also, noted Barbour, “since 2006 auto industry employment has dropped 36 percent. But Toyota is employing relatively the same number today that it was four years ago. Their loyalty to their team members is what made us want to attract them to Mississippi.”
Inaba said Blue Springs was an ideal spot for the company.
“It is centrally located, close to our supplier base and we have no doubts about employees’ commitment to quality and hard work,” he said.
And they’ll have a chance to prove it, when the first of up to 150,000 Corollas a year start rolling off the line by the fall of 2011.
That year, fall officially begins on Sept 23 – or 463 days from today.