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An Era Begins, and Ends, on Interstate 22

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Interstate 22

Interstate 22

While Detroit may be suffering epic pangs from its decade of overindulgence, it's not alone. The whole of the auto industry is facing the screeching halt to years of rapid expansion in capacity, and the era may finally be coming to a close in tiny Blue Springs, Mississippi, the home of Toyota's latest greenfield assembly plant, and probably its last for a long while.

The northeast corner of Mississippi is famous for two things: Elvis Presley and lumber. Trucks tug tons of felled pine to mills dotted through verdant hills here, while the town of Tupelo has raised the birthplace of the King to an almost regal spot--the perfectly preserved shack sits circled in sidewalks and gravel, poised for contemplation like a Pieta.

In the distance, you can hear the hum of Highway 78. Governors in three states have been planning since 1978 for the day the road's complete and the world beats a path here. One day soon, it will be a full-fledged Interstate 22. And the plan will be fulfilled.

About that same time, sometime in 2010, I-22 will become the road home for the 2010 Toyota Prius. Toyota decided earlier this year to halt its massive U.S. expansion in its tracks, to cut down on the number of trucks it builds in the U.S., and to establish a beachhead in the South--the very rural South that Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman once famously backhanded--for its most technologically advanced, most important model.

The new plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, is the zenith of the whole stratagem of moving the car industry generally south, tailed by the burgeoning VW plant in Chattanooga and the Kia plant mushrooming in West Point, Georgia. From Tennessee to South Carolina to Alabama, the pattern has held since the 1980s: Find a rural greenfield site on a major interstate near a big state university, wait for states to outbid each other with tax incentives, plow the earth clean, raise a roof, and hire an experienced management layer at the top to train a new generation of car builders where no experience existed.

It worked in Tennessee and in South Carolina. And in Alabama, when Mercedes-Benz planted its M-Class plant outside of Tuscaloosa. It worked well enough there that Honda and Hyundai moved in, and brought Kia along on the coattails just across the Georgia border. If you consider rural Indiana the South, it worked there too.

It probably will work in Blue Springs, too, though Toyota's path is a little riskier than most of this generation of transplants. Not only is the Prius a very complex car to build (even if drivetrains are shipped over intact from Japan), it's also a high-caliber risk to take what's essentially the flagship car for one of the world's largest automakers and put it in the hands of rookies.

Without a doubt, the Mississippi plant is at the very edge of the auto universe. It's nearly at the edge of the universe, period--it isn't even on an interstate. I-22 is just a designation for the four-lane road that ribbons around northern Mississippi's lumber capitals. Until Tennessee figures out how to tie it into the highways conjoined in Memphis, and until Alabama figures the same thing out for the other end in Birmingham, the Toyota plant technically sits on Highway 78, nothing more.

But it's a road with a big future ahead of it and plenty of pitfalls. This new plant could overcome Toyota's recent quality foibles at its Texas truck plant--or it could reinforce them.

For Mississippi, it's another step deeper in lockstep with the New South that had studiously avoided it until the 1990s, when WorldCom blustered in and out of town. Nissan came to town and turned sleepy Jackson into a more humming hub after that.

Toyota makes both look like prep work. It will take Tupelo, and Ripley, and Holley Springs, and Booneville and push them to the very forefront of a new future for the auto industry. At the same time, it's probably the last game-changer of its kind--and a fortunate hand to be dealt last.

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