Longworth at Large: Did Toyota Play Us?
By: Jim Longworth
In 1976 Toyota aired a TV ad campaign whose slogan was, “You asked for it, you got it. Toyota!” For the past year Piedmont business leaders, elected officials, and economic development specialists have “asked” Toyota/Mazda to bring their new manufacturing plant to our Megasite in Randolph County, but last week Toyota told us that we don’t “got it.” Instead, the 1.6 billion dollar facility went to Huntsville, Alabama, and so did the 4,000 jobs it will create.
“It’s profoundly disappointing,” one local official told me. But more than being disappointed, most of the folks involved with Megasite seemed surprised that Toyota chose Alabama over us. They shouldn’t have been. The truth is, we never had a chance at landing Toyota/Mazda, and I believe the folks in Japan and Huntsville knew that from the get-go. I’m not suggesting any collusion occurred because Alabama didn’t need to cheat. I spoke at length with Jim Searcy, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, who explained why. “I wouldn’t say North Carolina did anything wrong; it’s just that we had a lot of positives.”
That’s what you call an understatement.
For one thing, Alabama already has three major automobile manufacturing plants: Mercedes in Tuscaloosa County; Honda in Lincoln; and Hyundai in Montgomery. And guess which company already has a plant in Huntsville where they manufacture over 700,000 car engines each year? You Got it, Toyota! But the biggest “positive” Alabama offered Toyota/Mazda is an impressive supply chain. It’s what Jim Searcy meant when he told me, “We had some advantages that no other state had.” In fact, Alabama is home to over 150 tier 1 and tier 2 automotive suppliers which, in layman’s terms, means that by locating in Huntsville, Toyota/Mazda would be a stone’s throw away from everything they need to keep their plant going. On the flip side, North Carolina has no major automobile manufacturing plants and no automotive supply chain. Tally up the ledger and Toyota’s decision to build (again) in Alabama is a no-brainer.
This disparity of “positives” prompted me to ask one Megasite team member about the possibility that Toyota planned on building in Huntsville all along, and only used us as leverage to make sure Alabama kept the perks coming. Speaking anonymously, the Megasite proponent told me, “I can’t deny what you’re saying, it’s not out of the question. But if they did, then they were very convincing, because up until a couple of months ago, we thought the deal was ours to lose. I certainly think Alabama sweetened the pot for Toyota.” Meanwhile, Searcy, a 30-year economic development specialist, told me his team didn’t take anything for granted. “We were very aggressive, and we knew what it took to get the plant. Did we allow our competition to force us into over-paying? Absolutely not. We knew we had leverage and an advantage.” And again, that advantage wasn’t money (we offered Toyota four times more in incentives than did Alabama), rather it was familiarity, a track record, and an established supply chain.
I asked Searcy to imagine for a moment that he was leading the Megasite project. “Would you have even attempted to bid on Toyota/Mazda, knowing the deck was stacked in favor of Huntsville?” Said Searcy, “Yes, but I would have gone into it with my eyes wide open.” Translation? It was Alabama’s to lose, not ours.
So did we waste our time bidding for Toyota/Mazda? Yes and no. Yes, in that we should face the fact that we’ll never be able to compete with other Southeastern states for car plants. No, in that the efforts put forth by the Greensboro Randolph Megasite Foundation give us a viable property to market going forward. The question is who do we market it to?
Alabama may have a lot of “positives” when it comes to attracting automobile factories, but North Carolina has a lot of positives too. We have a rich history of textile manufacturing, and if President Trump’s corporate tax package works as planned, then the Megasite would be a perfect location for an ex-patriated textile plant. We also have a pretty impressive transportation system with easy access to roads, rail, and air, and we’re only a few hours from a seaport, so the Megasite could easily accommodate a major distribution center. But North Carolina is also known for two other “positives”: racing and tourism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put a NASCAR track at the Megasite, and an amusement park adjacent to it, perhaps one that even includes some racing-related rides? Yes we already have Carowinds and the Charlotte Motor Speedway, but three other states have more than one NASCAR track, and over 20 states are home to multiple theme parks, so there’s no reason why Randolph County cant have both.
OK, so we didn’t get what we asked for from Toyota/Mazda. What we got was a drive shaft up our rear end. But that’s OK, because we can do better, and thanks to the Megasite team, we will.