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Toyota may be close to picking site for plant

By Bill Poovey
Associated Press Writer

CHATTANOOGA — Rumors are swirling that Toyota Motor Corp. is close to making an announcement about where it will build its next U.S. assembly plant.

But if a decision is coming soon, nobody’s talking.

“We are actively looking at sites,” said Dan Sieger, a spokesman for Japan’s top automaker, and that’s the most anyone at Toyota would say.

Competition is fierce since the assembly plant would create at least 2,000 new jobs. Newspapers have reported that Chattanooga is a finalist, along with Marion, Ark., which is near Memphis.

The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, also mentioned Chattanooga and Marion, along with Alamo, Tenn., and Davidson County, N.C.

But Chattanooga’s mayor, Tennessee’s governor and the state’s top industry recruiter won’t say anything specific about the Toyota plant.

Officials in Chattanooga already have a 1,600-acre industrial site ready, and they have a contract with the law firm of Howard Baker, the former U.S. senator and ambassador to Japan, to help with economic development. Baker would not comment.

Employment ripple

Beyond the 2,000 jobs, the Toyota plant could make an even bigger employment ripple, with an indirect impact of about 10,000 jobs, according to studies by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Michael Randle, editor and publisher of Southern Business and Development magazine in Birmingham said he has correctly predicted most auto assembly plant sites, starting with BMW in South Carolina in 1992. He’s not ruling out Chattanooga, but he guesses Toyota will pick Marion, Ark., this time.

Randle said no Japanese auto company has ever located a new plant on a redeveloped former industrial site, also known as a “brownfield” location.

The Chattanooga site is on land that was part of a former Army TNT plant complex, with ammunition bunkers that have been removed. The TNT plant shut down in 1977 and the Army cleaned up explosives, metals and PCBs in the soil and groundwater.

“It’s not a slam on Chattanooga,” Randle said. “I just don’t think it’s going to be an automotive plant.”

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said the Chattanooga site was never categorized as a brownfield.

She said some cleanup work was done at the site to remove limited areas of contamination. “The site has been investigated, cleared and is clean to a residential standard,” she said.

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey also said the Chattanooga site had been tested by state and federal officials and was “clean and ready to be used.”

“We even have insurance if something is found,” Ramsey said.

Sieger, the Toyota spokesman, said that in the two decades since the company started building plants in the U.S., all of them had been on “greenfield” sites, land that was either agricultural or undeveloped.

“Whether a site is a greenfield or brownfield is something we look at. It is a factor,” Sieger said. “But by no means is it an absolute prerequisite for a decision.”

Steven Szakaly, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research, said auto companies prefer greenfield sites because there is usually plenty of nearby space for suppliers.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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