With code name, how Toyota-Mazda set off secret race for 4,000-job plant

One of the biggest potential job-creating bonanzas in the country, a giant new auto plant proposed by Toyota and Mazda, began in secret with a mysterious code name.

Now it has become a full-blown race among states to try to reel in the $1.6-billion project that will create 4,000 good-paying direct jobs and thousands of other indirect jobs.

The two Japanese automakers recently issued a blind request for proposals to states in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and South, according to two people familiar with the plans who were not authorized to speak publicly because the process was confidential.

Told only that an unidentified employer was weighing its options for a massive project under the code name Project Mitt, state economic development officials delivered preliminary proposals, including potential tax incentives, job training programs and infrastructure investments.

When the Japanese automakers publicly revealed their joint venture two weeks ago, they made it clear they had not yet picked a site. State economic development offices are now in high gear.

No fewer than a dozen states are believed to have a shot at landing the automotive factory, which automotive industry researchers say could create several times as many jobs at nearby employers.

Job-creating projects of this magnitude are rare — it would be only the fourth U.S. assembly plant in a decade when it opens in 2021 — so Toyota and Mazda are expecting contenders to roll out the red carpet for their 50-50 joint venture.

Also making the project a plum, Toyota, in particular, takes “a very long-term view” that should keep its giant plant in place for half a century or more, said Ron Harbour, an expert on auto manufacturing sites who works for consultancy Oliver Wyman.

“You have to be able to say you’ve got the workforce, you’ve got the land, you’ve got the transportation systems and rail spurs, community college and education and a place where people want to live,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research. “Once you’ve got all that, tax incentives come into play.”

But unlike the recent contest to land smartphone components manufacturer Foxconn’s first U.S. plant — which Wisconsin won after delivering a massive incentives package — tax breaks might not be enough to seal the deal.

Access to a dependable labor force, a vibrant community and enough contiguous land close to power and transportation infrastructure could make the difference, said Bradley Migdal, senior managing director and business incentives expert at Cushman & Wakefield.

Toyota, which hired commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle to help manage the process, declined to discuss states under consideration.

"We are just beginning the discovery process ,” Toyota said in a statement. “As we solidify our plans, we will share more information about the selection process."

Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes, in an email, said, “I do know that no decisions have been made at this time, and that all options remain on the table.”

Here’s a look at some of the key states in the mix:

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Alabama

Why it could win: Low-cost labor, bustling auto sector.

Why it could lose: Might not have enough workers.

Alabama’s vibrant auto manufacturing sector could help or hurt.

Three auto assembly plants made more than 1 million vehicles in 2016 in Alabama. The industry employed nearly 40,000 people in a right-to-work state desperate for good-paying jobs.

State development officials declined to directly discuss any efforts to land a proposed Toyota-Mazda assembly plant.

But Gov. Kay Ivey said new incentives laws have made Alabama more attractive to expanding companies. The changes she signed into law in May raised the annual state incentives cap to $300 million.

Ivey said Alabama’s reputation as “a proven manufacturing state” also helps.

Alabama has Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota plants. North Alabama is the “more likely area” for the project if Alabama lands it, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said.

--Brad Harper, Montgomery Advertiser

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Arkansas

Why it could win: Was a finalist for the last new Toyota plant.

Why it could lose: Too far away from suppliers.

Arkansas was a finalist for the Toyota factory that opened in Blue Springs, Miss., in 2011.

Arkansas Economic Development Commission spokesman Jeff Moore said the state “certainly has interest” again.

Arkansas has broad latitude in issuing bonds to raise funds for infrastructure, land acquisition and job training.

The Economic Development Commission also administers sales tax exemptions, income tax credits and a payroll rebate program.

“We certainly have a very good toolbox of incentives to assist,” Moore said.

--Kevin Hardy, Des Moines Register

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Georgia

Why it could win: Worker training programs, enticing location.

Why it could lose: Lack of ties to Toyota operations.

Georgia is host to one of the newest U.S. assembly plants: the Kia factory in West Point, which opened in 2009, which has some 3,000 workers today.

One of the state’s key selling points is its geography. Interstate 75 runs right through it.

Among Georgia's most compelling arguments is that its worker training programs are among “the best in the country,” said Bradley Migdal, the Cushman & Wakefield site expert.

Georgia Department of Economic Development communications director Stefanie Paupeck Harper declined to say whether the state has discussed a deal with Toyota and Mazda. But she said the state's "hundreds" of suppliers could help.

“Automotive companies will not find another state that has a better combination of logistics, workforce, quality of life and proven record of success than Georgia," Harper said.

--Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY

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Indiana

Why it could win: Already has a Toyota plant and is close to other operations, including Toyota’s Kentucky plant and Michigan engineering campus.

Why it could lose: The job market is so strong that the automakers might have a hard time finding enough employees.

Toyota has a 19-year-old factory in southern Indiana that builds the Sequoia sport-utility vehicle and Sienna minivan and is undergoing a $600 million expansion.

Overall, the auto industry employs more than 100,000 people in Indiana. Honda, Subaru and Chrysler each have initiated expansions there since 2010.

While the strong presence of auto factories and suppliers could make Indiana a viable contender for the Toyota-Mazda plant, existing facilities also might be one reason why the state gets passed over, said Mohan Tatikonda, an operations management professor for the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

With Indiana's unemployment rate at a near-record-low 3%, Toyota and Mazda could have concerns about finding employees.

"If we have multiple companies seeking generally the same labor skill, then laborers or their representatives can seek out a higher price," Tatikonda said. "So, if that's the case, a company may seek to go to a place where there's less competition for a ready labor force."

A spokeswoman for the Indiana Economic Development Corp. declined comment.

--James Briggs, Indianapolis Star

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Iowa

Why it could win: Dependable manufacturing workforce; no competition with other assembly plants.

Why it could lose: Too far away from suppliers.

Toyota has already asked Iowa for information on specific sites that could house a new assembly plant with room for suppliers to grow, said Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state is “extremely competitive” in its hunt for the Toyota-Mazda plant but wouldn’t comment on potential incentives.

“We are going to do everything we can ― up to a limit. You have to know where you draw a line,” Reynolds said. “But we’re competitive. This would be great for the state of Iowa.”

The Hawkeye state can tout a “second-to-none” work force, low energy costs and regular rankings that place the cost of doing business in Iowa among the lowest in the nation, she said.

The state routinely doles out forgivable loans, tax credits and tax refunds for companies that pledge to create or maintain jobs.

While Iowa isn’t known for automotive manufacturing, state officials have made a concerted effort to reach out to carmakers over the last year in an effort to recruit a new assembly plant.

--Kevin Hardy, Des Moines Register

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Kentucky

Why it could win: Toyota already has a massive factory in Georgetown, Ky.; close to numerous suppliers; likely to offer major incentives.

Why it could lose: If Toyota decides it’s already exhausted the local workforce for talent.Toyota's 8 million-square-foot, 8,200-job Georgetown, Ky., facility makes more than 500,000 Camry, Lexus and Avalon vehicles per year. Toyota is investing $1.3 billion into plant upgrades.

The state also boasts two Ford factories in Louisville and General Motors' Chevrolet Corvette plant in Bowling Green.

The factory draws from 350 suppliers and commodities vendors, 100 of them in Kentucky.

Gov. Matt Bevin told auto executives that a shovel-ready 1,550-acre site in central Kentucky, south of Elizabethtown near Interstate 65, is an ideal location for the investment.

Bevin pushed successfully for a right-to-work law and other business-friendly measures this year, and pledged to compete aggressively against rival states. “I say giddy up,” he said.

--Grace Schneider, Louisville Courier-Journal

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Michigan

Why it could win: Traditional home to the nation's auto industry — and Toyota engineering has its engineering facility in the Wolverine State.

Why it could lose: If the automakers fear potential unionization.

While Michigan is home to the Detroit Three auto companies — not to mention engineering centers for virtually every major automaker and numerous suppliers — the state’s union history has long scared off foreign automakers from considering a manufacturing presence there. In fact, no foreign automaker operates an assembly plant in Michigan.

But "it’s not as much of a deterrent" anymore, said Glenn Stevens, vice president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “Michigan previously was not a right-to-work state, as it is now. And even though the UAW has incredibly strong relationships with some companies in Michigan, there are also companies here that are not unionized.”

Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in 2012 that gives every worker the right to choose for themselves whether to join a union, arguing it would position it to better compete with states in the South that are more hostile to labor unions.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of bills in July that would provide significant tax incentives for manufacturers, aiming to lure Foxconn.

“Michigan is absolutely the best location in the U.S. for this joint plant to be established, due to our leadership in automotive research & development, especially on mobility issues. We also have a strong pipeline of engineers and professional trades talent,” Snyder said in a statement.

Stevens also argued that Michigan has the manufacturing workforce necessary to support such a project and points out that Toyota employs 1,600 at engineering centers in the Ann Arbor area.

--Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press

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Mississippi

Why it could win: Landed the last new Toyota plant.

Why it could lose: If Toyota believes the local workforce can’t sustain another factory.

The Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Miss. opened in 2011 and employs about 2,000 people. The state also has Nissan’s 5,000-person assembly plant in Canton.

Even with two major plants, the state can easily accommodate another and gin up training dollars to assure Toyota of a competent workforce, said Scott Waller, interim chief executive of the Mississippi Economic Council.

“Today the incentives are workforce based," Waller said. "It’s all workforce driven. There’s absolutely no question Mississippi can be successful.”

--Ted Evanoff, Memphis Commercial-Appeal

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North Carolina

Why it could win: No automotive assembly plants to compete with for talent.

Why it could lose: If the state is viewed as not having enough of a manufacturing workforce.

North Carolina doesn’t have any automotive assembly plants, which could prove enticing to Toyota because of the chance to bolster its political clout from the swing-state’s congressional delegation.

But the Tar Heel State has 26,000 workers at companies that supply the auto industry.

North Carolina’s tech-savvy Research Triangle could prove enticing, said John Boyd, head of Boyd Co. Inc., a location consultant.

--Ted Evanoff, Memphis Commercial-Appeal

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Ohio

Why it could win: Strong manufacturing workforce; centrally located; many local suppliers.

Why it could lose: Not a right-to-work state.

JobsOhio said the state boasts several sites of more than 1,000 acres that are ready for a manufacturing plant to break ground quickly. They are already hooked up to electric, water, sewer and fiber optic cables, with access to roads and routes to airports.

Toyota already has factories in neighboring Indiana and Kentucky and an engineering headquarters in Michigan. Locating its next plant in a Midwest state such as Ohio would keep it close to parts suppliers, saving time and money. Ohio is within a day’s drive of 75% of the country’s auto assembly plants and their accompanying parts networks, JobsOhio said.

Officially, Ohio isn’t saying whether it’s trying to land the Toyota-Mazda plant.

“We do not share whether or not we are in project discussions with companies,” said Matt Englehart, a spokesman for JobsOhio, the state’s privatized economic development arm.

But Gov. John Kasich and JobsOhio. the state’s privatized economic development arm, have shown a willingness to dole out incentives to keep auto-related jobs. Those moves included offering tax breaks to keep a Cleveland-area Ford truck plant open.

--Chrissie Thompson, Cincinnati Enquirer

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South Carolina

Why it could win: Growing automotive sector.

Why it could lose: If the automakers decide the job market is too crowded.

Finding the workers for such a plant could be a tall order, in part because of the state’s flourishing manufacturing sector. But state leaders said they have a proven track record for rising to the challenge by investing in training programs.

"We are a state that houses BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Boeing," South Carolina Department of Commerce spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said. "We have a workforce that is ready and available and we can create the workforce where necessary because we have the tools, tactics and strategies to do it."

State economic development experts touted the region's highly skilled workers, transportation hubs and cluster of auto suppliers. The upstate region, located in the northwestern portion of the state, is a manufacturing powerhouse, said Mark Farris, president of the Greenville Area Development Corporation.

But Ken Crews, training manager at German auto-parts supplier Stueken North America, said he has struggled to find new workers with the right combination of skills and work ethic for his plant.

Jermaine Whirl, vice president for economic development and corporate training at Greenville Tech, finding requires may require casting a wider net geographically and getting able-bodied workers back into the labor force.

--Anna B. Mitchell, The Greenville News

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Tennessee

Why it could win: Significant, growing automotive sector; perfect location for logistical purposes; strong business climate.

Why it could lose: If the automakers decide there aren’t enough workers.

Tennessee has been waiting for this moment. A decade ago, the state purchased land with the specific purpose of landing a Toyota plant that never came.

“There will be a lot (of) people fighting hard for that plant, and we intend to be at the lead,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told the Associated Press.

Hoping to lure the Toyota plant that eventually went to Blue Springs, Miss., Tennessee acquired property dubbed the Memphis Regional Megasite. The site, which remains unused, is 4,100 acres situated 32 miles east of Memphis on vacant farm land along Interstate 40.

Site selection consultants said it’s one of Tennessee’s leading candidates for industrial investment.

Tennessee already has spent more than $140 million on the Memphis Megasite, building roads and water and sewer lines.

--Ted Evanoff, Memphis Commercial-Appeal

© 2017, USA TODAY


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