Toyota celebrates production start at new US plant

BLUE SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) - Toyota celebrated the start of Corolla production at its newest auto plant Thursday after a lengthy delay that the car maker blamed on the weak economy.

The ceremony formally marked the recent start of production, 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 was now right for production.

It is the 14th plant in North America for the Japanese 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.

Toyota officials said they have built about 500 cars at the plant already and those have been distributed to dealers on the Gulf Coast. Thursday's event highlighted the first one to roll off the assembly line, which they intend to keep at the plant for a display.

The plant will employ about 2,000 people by next year and opens amid high unemployment nationwide and in Mississippi, where the jobless rate hovers above 10 percent. Mississippi Department of Employment Security officials have said more than 41,000 people applied for the new plant, with applicants coming from all 82 Mississippi counties, 44 other states and Puerto Rico

Officials from three counties spent years working to lure a car manufacturer, watching as other Southern communities reaped the economic spoils of new plant openings. In the past decade, foreign car makers that opened plants elsewhere have included Nissan in central Mississippi, Toyota in Texas, Kia in Georgia and Volkswagen in Tennessee.

Barbour went to 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.

The Mississippi plant sits at the edge of Blue Springs, a town of 200 that's little more than a winding, hilly road lined with modest houses, a small post office and Gentry's Grocery & Grill, the only store in town.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.