Toyota: Plant still on, no date

TUPELO – Toyota Motor Corp. remains committed to opening its Blue Springs plant, but when it will roll out its first vehicle is unclear.
Toyota spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel and Toyota Mississippi Vice President David Copenhaver said that the Japanese automaker has not wavered in its plans to eventually begin production at the facility.
Even though the Cash for Clunkers program provided a boost to auto sales, the long-term outlook remains weak for the U.S. auto market, they said.
“So TMC can’t make an SOP (start of operation) date for Mississippi,” Copenhaver said. “We saw some good signs, some signs of pent-up demand, but no long-term signs of recovery.”
Toyota is in the midst of its annual two-year planning phase and it appears that the Blue Springs plant will have to wait a little longer.
Toyota announced in February 2007 that it planned to invest $1.3 billion in the plant, which was scheduled to open late next year. But in December of last year, Toyota said it was delaying the opening of the plant indefinitely because of slumping auto demand and a tough economy.
Conditions, while improved, still aren’t good enough for the automaker to set an opening date. Once set, however, officials have said it would take 18-24 months to get the plant operating.
Toyota has invested about $300 million in the plant and has all but completed its construction. Equipment has not been ordered or installed.
Copenhaver also said that 15 Japanese nationals are ending their standard two-year rotations at the plant and will return to other facilities. Normally, another rotation of Japanese nationals would replace them, but because of the delay, that won’t happen this time, McDaniel said.
“It’s a long-standing Toyota program where the Japanese nationals come in, help with plant preparation, stay a while during start of production and then rotate back to Japan,” Copenhaver said. “But since there’s no SOP here, and their rotation is up, they’ll be going back.”
That leaves the Blue Springs plant with about 80 workers, about a quarter of whom will remain there. The rest will be temporarily relocated to other Toyota facilities, where they’ll receive further training.
Toyota pays 100 percent of their expenses and also will pay for their home while they’re gone, Copenhaver said.
“Our purpose always was to keep the project team together,” he said.
“But the key thing is that nothing has changed as far as Toyota’s commitment to produce vehicles in Blue Springs.”
Asked if the Prius Hybrid was the vehicle the plant would produce, Copenhaver said Toyota will consider all the possibilities but “I haven’t heard anything other than we’re going to build the Prius.”
McDaniel also said that Toyota in May will be making its first scheduled payment into an education trust fund that will be administered by the CREATE Foundation. Toyota is donating $5 million a year for 10 years to build an endowment that will be used by schools in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties.

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

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal