OPINION: No Saturns, other cars in Blue Springs

Barbara McDaniel, whose official title is manager of government relations and corporate affairs for Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc., has been the primary “face” of Toyota since the automaker announced it was building a plant here more than 2 1/2 years ago.
She’s the chief spokeswoman from the company’s Kentucky headquarters and helps answer any questions the local contacts can’t
David Copenhaver is the vice president of administration for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi, the official name of the still-idle plant in Blue Springs.
So when they said they wanted to update us on the plant last week, I immediately asked, “When and where?”
“I know what you’re going to tell me,” I said when I met them about an hour later.
Their eyebrows raised.
“You’re going to build Saturns in Blue Springs. Either that, or you’re going to build those cars for that Chinese company,” I said.
Yes, we all got a good laugh. If you’ve read my column the past couple of weeks, you know what I’m talking about.
Of course, the news was nothing like that.
Instead, they said nothing had changed and that Toyota still has no start of production date set.
But Toyota is committed to the finishing the project and, as far as Copenhaver has heard, to build Prius Hybrids.
You’ll remember that David Magee, the author of “How Toyota Became No. 1,” said recently that he didn’t think Toyota would begin building anything there for another three or four years.
He might be right. He might not be.
But it does take 18-24 months to get a plant running once equipment is installed and workers are trained.
And while we bid sayonara to the Japanese nationals who will be leaving Mississippi at the end of the year, at least Copenhaver will stick around.
So will some of the American staff hired to prepare the plant to get running. But most of the remaining Toyota Mississippi workers will be sent to other Toyota operations to get additional training, including hands-on work, that will get them ready when Blue Springs is ready to roll.
Would Toyota spend that kind of money if it weren’t committed to the project?
It has already spent more than $300 million in the plant. And it is set to make the first of ten $5 million payments to an education endowment set up for Pontotoc, Union and Lee county schools.
Toyota Motor Corp.’s board meeting this fall may yield news of the future of Blue Springs. McDaniel and Copenhaver said they didn’t think it would.
And rumor has it that Gov. Haley Barbour, who recently wrapped up a tour of Asia that made a stop in Japan on his final leg, met with Toyota officials.
I don’t know if he met with Akio Toyoda, the company’s president and grandson of the founder. And I don’t know if Barbour got any assurances about Blue Springs’ future.
But I feel better knowing that Toyota has again reinforced it’s position that Blue Springs will open eventually.
And that it won’t be building Saturns or Chinese cars.

Contact Dennis Seid at dennis.seid@djournal.com or at (662) 678-1578

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal