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Toyota fetes start of new Mississippi plant

22 November 2011 No Comment

Toyota celebrated the start of Corolla production at its newest U.S. auto plant Thursday after a lengthy delay that the carmaker blamed on the weak economy.

The ceremony formally marked the start of production last month, almost five years after Toyota Motor Corp. announced in February 2007 that it would build a sprawling facility in Blue Springs, a tiny town in the sparsely populated hills of north Mississippi.

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, on hand for the ceremony, blamed the setback on the economy but said the time is now right for production.

It is the 14th plant in North America for the company, which builds 12 models in North America, including the Camry, RAV4 and Tacoma pickup. Together, they account for nearly 70 percent of Toyota’s U.S. sales.

Toyota first planned to build the Highlander SUV in Mississippi, then the gas-electric Prius before settling on Corollas. Production was originally planned for 2010.

Gov. Haley Barbour said he never lost confidence in Toyota and supported the company’s decision to delay production.

Hundreds of plant workers erupted in cheers when the plant’s first production car, a shiny black Corolla, was driven on stage in a highly choreographed event.

It was not immediately clear exactly when production started. Toyota officials said during the ceremony that about 550 cars have already been sent to Gulf Coast dealers, though they said the one showcased Thursday was the first built and will go on display in the plant’s lobby.

Barbour said about 1,500 workers are currently employed at the plant, known as Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Mississippi.

The facility is expected to employ 2,000 people by next year and create hundreds of jobs for suppliers, at a time when unemployment in Mississippi hovers above 10 percent. Mississippi Department of Employment Security officials have said more than 41,000 people applied for jobs at the plant.

Barbour visited Japan to court Toyota before the Blue Springs plant was announced in 2007, and state officials quickly signed off on a $324 million incentive package.

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