Toyota official: Prius is still a go

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

Officials with Toyota Motor Co. repeated once more that the automaker is moving ahead with plans to build the Prius hybrid in Mississippi.
Wednesday, Automotive News reported that the Japanese automaker was contemplating a different vehicle for its Blue Springs plant west of Tupelo.
The story said Toyota was looking at other models it could build there, quoting Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America Senior Vice President Steve St. Angelo.
But Toyota officials say that St. Angelo was quoted inaccurately.
And Toyota Mississippi spokeswoman Lacy Luckett said, “We are committed to building the plant and plan to build the Prius in Mississippi.”
St. Angelo told Automotive News that Toyota is “very committed to that plant. But we’re looking at our whole portfolio and asking which products it makes sense to build or not build in North America.”
Luckett also refuted a statement in the story that the 120 employees at the Blue Springs plant have been reassigned to other roles in Georgetown, Ky., Toyota’s first North American assembly plant, which also happens to be the “mother plant” for Toyota Mississippi.
“None of our team members have been reassigned,” she said.
Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement, “Toyota officials tell us they have no plans and no intention of building anything at Blue Springs other than the Prius. The story in Automotive News was full of obviously inaccurate information, such as the statement that Toyota employees hired at Blue Springs have been sent somewhere else; according to local managers, those employees are still at Blue Springs.”
In December, Toyota announced it was delaying indefinitely the opening of Toyota Mississippi, which was to produce the Prius hybrid starting in late 2010. The automaker said it would wait until economic conditions improve before making a decision.
St. Angelo also told Automotive News that Toyota’s most pressing issue is getting all its plants and workers at full speed before moving ahead on plans for Blue Springs.
He also said that no change to the plan had been made but that it was possible the Prius could be made at a different North American plant.
It is the second time this year that a Toyota executive has hinted at new plans at Toyota Mississippi.
In March, Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz told Bloomberg News that it was “conceivable that something else could go potentially” at the plant.
Company and state officials responded in similar fashion, insisting no changes had been made.
Toyota broke ground on the $1.3 billion plant in 2007. It originally was scheduled to produce the Highlander SUV beginning late this year, but Toyota delayed the opening to spring 2010, then in July announced the Prius would be built as part of a major manufacturing realignment in North America. Then in December it announced the indefinite delay.
So far, the company has invested about $300 million in the plant, and work continues on the railroad and highway interchange alongside Highway 78.
Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, said he has not heard of any changes at the plant.
“We’re going by what we’ve been hearing, and that’s that it is a matter of when, not if, for the plant to open,” he said.
Three Rivers is the administrative overseer of the Pontotoc Union Lee Alliance, or PUL, which helped create and develop the site where Toyota Mississippi is being built.

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