Toyota's New Corolla-Producing Mississippi Plant to Take Next Big Step

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Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi (TMMM) has had 170 employees since 2008, but never turned a vehicle off a line throughout its brief existence. After being hushed for over two years, the impending New Year will produce the next big step for the Blue Springs plant.

TMMM was originally announced back in February 2007 as the then-latest site for the Highlander. Then came the economic meltdown. The auto industry was hit especially hard during the recent gas and financial crises, which led to the stoppage of TMMM’s plant construction in December 2008. At the time, the Prius had been penciled into the work lines that would have gone live this year. Now, instead of the Highlander or the Prius, the Corolla will be the first vehicle off the line.

Toyota announced it would complete the plant back in June and hire staff to fill the halls of TMMM beginning in August, and the first 10 employees will join the existing 170 next week for training. When all is said and done, the Japanese automaker expects to put 2000 individuals to work.

Those human beings won’t all be coming from Blue Springs, as there are less than 150 people registered to the town. Locals from the surrounding Tupelo area, who have had to cope with an 11-percent unemployment rate, are expected to fill most of the positions. As has been the case with much of the south, the area’s main industry —  furniture production — moved away. Northeastern Mississippi has lost over 15,000 jobs since 1990, according to municipal government estimates. With a little push from state and local officials, Toyota opted to set up shop in the area; it also operates sites in Alabama, and Kentucky and Texas.

By its nature, the planning, construction, and execution of a world-class auto plant requires millions of dollars, and Toyota had already reportedly spent some $300 million on the facility before construction halted. Production equipment is said to be on the way in part from the recently shuttered NUMMI plant (now owned by Tesla) in California, where the automaker built the Corolla, the Big T’s second-best-selling model by far. The compact sedan is presently built in Japan and Ontario, Canada.

When production starts up in the fall of next year, Toyota anticipates it will build roughly 140,000 Corollas per year, well short of estimated plant capacity.  Industry analysts predict it’ll be difficult for the automaker to make money from the facility unless 200,000  or so vehicles are rolling off the line. Toyota appears to be taking the long view with TMMM’s production plans however, as the brand continues to rehabilitate its damaged image.

Despite the delays in getting the plant online, Blue Springs and Mississippi remain upbeat. An early Mississippi State University study predicts the 2000 direct plant jobs will generate some 4556 indirect positions in the area, from suppliers setting up shop to the mom-and-pop restaurateurs picking up a cook or two. State and local governments have appropriated close to $294 million to build highway ramps, 11 miles of natural gas lines, and a 10,000-foot railroad spur for the site. Not surprisingly, Toyota will enjoy a corporate tax holiday for 20 years as part of the commitment to the company’s future business.

We’re now in the grip of winter, and fall 2011 is another three seasons away. You can bet the Mississippi job hopeful are counting down the months now.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Toyota

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