LLOYD GRAY: Waiting for a new era can be hard

February 2007 is only 28 months in the past, but economically it’s eons ago. That’s when Toyota officially announced it was coming to Northeast Mississippi in a euphoric pep rally – there’s no other way to describe it – at Tupelo High School.
Times were pretty good then for the economy in general, but they were out of sight for Toyota. The company’s sales were exploding and its share of the U.S. market growing rapidly by the day. The sky was the limit for this company, and we’d soon be a part of it.
Then the bottom fell out of the economy and the automotive industry, and Toyota wasn’t immune. Nearly two and a half years later, the company and its successful suitors await a marriage postponed by circumstances neither could have anticipated when the engagement was announced.
Toyota, which already has invested $300 million in construction of its $1.3 billion plant at Blue Springs, will not walk away from it, contrary to the views of some skeptics. This company’s history, philosophy and long-term view of things won’t allow that to happen. But even unique companies have to adjust to severe business conditions, and moving ahead with its plans for Blue Springs at a time when product demand was taking a nosedive would have been unwise.
So putting the plant on hold is a rational , level-headed and completely understandable business decision. The problem is that for Northeast Mississippians – particularly those in the PUL counties and others nearby with announced or hoped-for suppliers – Toyota has been seen not just as a significant industrial announcement but as the advent of a new era and, even more pointedly, an affirmation of this region and its people. It represented our breakthrough to the really big leagues of economic enterprise; it proved we could compete with anybody anywhere.
This was, and is, heady stuff. And it helps explain the anxiety with which we see, hear and digest every word that comes from the mouth of a Toyota executive, every suggestion of a new plan or timetable, every hint of what is or is not to come. The stakes – not just economic, but psychological and emotional as well – are high, and it’ll be hard to rest easy until the day the plant at Blue Springs is actually turning out vehicles.
That heavy, multi-faceted investment that people in this region have in the eventual arrival of Toyota is why it’s so unsettling to hear talk from this or that company executive about possible changes, such as we heard last week regarding the potential that a vehicle other than the Prius might be produced here. Toyota spokespersons quickly mopped up after those unofficial comments, saying the company had made no change in its plans, which actually didn’t contradict the thrust of what Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America Senior Vice President Steve St. Angelo said as reported in Automotive News.
When early reports began to surface last year about possible postponement in the plant’s scheduled 2010 opening, the official company statements were essentially the same: No decision has been made to change our plans. Later, of course, a decision was made, and the indefinite plant delay was officially announced.
So never say never. The Prius – itself a change announced last summer, after production of the Highlander crossover SUV had first been the plan – would be great to produce here and would definitely give this plant a special cachet. But the most important words are those repeated every time Toyota has anything to say about Blue Springs: We are committed, unequivocally, to opening the Mississippi plant.
In the end, that’s all that really matters – that Toyota sees Northeast Mississippi as an important and integral part of its future, whatever is produced here and whenever it finally comes off the production line.
For something that has generated so much excitement, being patient is hard, and nothing has generated more excitement in this region in many years than Toyota. But read the history of Toyota. Patience for good things to unfold over time and a deep aversion to short-term thinking are hallmarks of the company.
Twenty-eight months, and however much more time passes before the plant opens, may seem like an eternity when you’re waiting on the realization of a region’s highest economic aspirations. But if we’re truly ushering in a new era, a little extra time before it arrives is only a small bump in the road.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

NEMS Daily Journal