Toyota is careful in its ways; it didn’t get where it is today by idly locating manufacturing plants. And so it chose Georgetown, Ky. – 12 miles north of Lexington on I-75 – for the location of its first and largest U.S. plant.
Why, you may ask, did it come to the South? The easy answer is that it came for cheaper land and labor. It was lured also by large and much-criticized tax incentive packages as the South decided to get in the game and establish a manufacturing base to replace a sagging agriculturally based small-farm economy. Kentucky’s jeopardized tobacco future is a case in point.
But I believe there is more. Toyota came also for laborers eager to find the well-paying auto jobs that had so escaped the South for too long. It was also the work ethic that impressed the automakers early on. In Kentucky it was marveled at how workers from 116 of its 120 counties were hired when Toyota began operations – 7,000 strong. They are noted to be hard workers who love their work and their place, places of strong local values and roots, all translating into work ethic.
And now, following the twin tsunami shifts of Fall 2008, with the “near” Great Depression that has not hit rock bottom yet, and the historic election of Barack Obama, the term “bailout” has become engrained in our everyday vernacular.
Bailout came first for the financial industry and now the U.S. auto industry, arguably to rescue them in part from questionable business practices. But we are told to not do so would make the elusive “rock bottom” we have not yet reached parallel – if not surpass – the depths of the Great Depression.
So what does this bailout portend for Kentucky and the South? According to one Toyota executive, the webbing of the auto industry is so intertwined that the failure of the U.S. auto industry would bring down the entire house of cards, including the supplier plants that Toyota and other “new age” manufacturing plants call “just-in-time delivery.”
Others see the bailout as undermining a trend that favors efficiency in manufacturing and the novel thought that some carmakers anticipated long ago in the desire for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Still others are baffled about what they would do if it were their congressional vote. The global economy has grown complex in many ways. Among the most vexing issues surround the involvement of government in private companies and its role into the future. That struggle does not lie with the U.S. alone.
A final factor is, of course, the attitude of the new Obama administration toward Kentucky and the South. Kentucky in particular stood out once again with early poll closings, declared “red” by a large percentage as it went to McCain. During the long campaign, Obama tiptoed only once into the state and that was in “blue” Louisville. He made no effort to win us over as Kennedy had in earlier presidential campaigns. We will soon learn if he remains true to his rhetoric that proclaims that we are neither “red” nor “blue” but one America.
There’s much our new president could do for this part of the world. The mega car factories might show what our workforce is capable of, but they have not been enough to reverse our relatively low per capita incomes. New investments – roads, waterways, freight rail lines, skills training – could help lift our state up even further. We just hope that the new president realizes that all of America will benefit if the South can build on its automotive industry success to achieve a much broader prosperity.