It has finally happened.
Japanese car-maker, Toyota Motor Corporation, celebrated a promise made nearly five years ago Thursday when it invited state and local officials to commemorate its beginning operations in Union County.
A “line-off” ceremony was held Thursday morning at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi plant near Blue Springs, marking the first Mississippi-produced Toyota Corolla.
For many people, like Phil Nanney, executive director of the Union County Development Association, the ceremony was the end of a long journey and the beginning of a brighter future.
“At last the hopes and dreams of all those involved in the creation of the Wellspring megasite and the bringing of Toyota to north Mississippi have come true,” Nanney said.
Josh West, economic developer for Union and Pontotoc Counties, agreed.
“Toyota’s presence in our community will enhance our region’s economic position for decades to come,” West said.
The Wellspring megasite, developed under the leadership of Randy Kelley, director for Three Rivers Planning and Development District, was the pet project of the Pontotoc-Union-Lee Alliance. Kelley convinced city and county officials in all three counties to form the alliance in the early part of the last decade and to develop the 1,700 acre site to bring an automobile manufacturer to the region.
In February 2007, Toyota agreed to purchase the site and construct its first Mississippi plant. At that time, the company planned to open the facility in the spring of this year and produce the Highlander. In July of 2008, in light of skyrocketing gas prices, Toyota announced that it would instead make the Prius hybrid at Blue Springs, making it the first North American plant to build the vehicle. In December of that same year, however, due to the economic downturn, Toyota indefinitely suspended operations at the plant, but stated that it planned to move forward with production when the state of the economy showed an upswing.
The Corolla is one of the world’s top selling cars, with over 33 million in sales since it was first introduced in 1996. In 2009, it was number four in U.S. vehicle sales, with 300,000 sold, following the Chevy Silverado, Toyota Camry and F F-Series trucks.
A majority of the Corollas produced in North America were built at the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif., once co-owned by both Toyota and General Motors. After GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, the company withdrew from the partnership and Toyota closed the plant, stating that it could not keep the plant open alone.
The Blue Springs plant currently employs 1,300 workers, a majority of whom are from the North Mississippi area. By the end of this year, an additional 200 are expected to be hired. The number of employees at the plant should reach 2,000 by this time next year.
Toyota’s Tier I suppliers, Diversity-Vuteq, located off Highway 30 West in New Albany, and Toyota Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi of Baldwyn will also celebrate their “grand openings” this week. Diversity-Vuteq is expected to hold its ceremony at noon on Friday.
West said the news that both Toyota and its suppliers are holding these ceremonies hit at the right time of the year.
“It is fitting that Toyota and Vuteq’s Line-Off Ceremonies are occurring the week before Thanksgiving,” West said. “Adding significant jobs in the midst of an economic downturn reminds me of how much of how we have to be thankful for North Mississippi.”