DaimlerChrysler Will Not Build Van Plant in Georgia

Fri October 10, 2003 - Southeast Edition

ATLANTA (AP) It was touted as one of the biggest economic deals in state history, and Georgia taxpayers already had rolled out a $60-million welcome mat. But the bubble burst on Sept. 23, when DaimlerChrysler announced it will not build a proposed van plant near Savannah.

At the Statehouse, Democrats blamed Republicans and Republicans blamed Democrats. In Germany, where the automaker is located, a spokesman blamed the economy.

The decision sounded final, although the governor’s office expressed hope that it was only a delay and that the plant still might be built.

“It’s not a delay,” replied DaimlerChrysler spokesman Othmar Stein. “The decision has been made not to proceed with it at this time.” He cited concerns over currency fluctuations, tariffs and “the difficult automotive market.”

Analysts have said the automaker was not in a rush to build the new plant because it has an overcapacity in Europe and any increase in demand in the United States could be met by European excess.

The $754-million plant was to have been built at a 1,500-acre site in Pooler, 12 mi. west of Savannah, to manufacture Sprinter cargo vans.

Georgia had been locked in a tight contest with South Carolina to land the plant, so it was a jubilant Gov. Roy Barnes who flew to the coast one year ago to announce that Georgia had won the competition, based in part on promises of a $320-million inducement package.

State officials crowed that the plant would employ 3,300 people and generate an annual payroll of $155 million.

But coming, as it did, less than a month before the election, not everyone believed it was a done deal. Sonny Perdue, Barnes’ Republican challenger, mocked the announcement by declaring he had wooed a plant to build cars that could run on peanut shells.

But when Perdue defeated Barnes a month later, it fell to Perdue to pursue the plant, and after a meeting with company officials in Germany in June, he said, “Pooler is the location of choice, and we remain hopeful of a green-light decision this year.”

In July, when a decision had been expected, the company announced a postponement, saying it needed more time to evaluate the need for the Pooler plant.

The result of the recent announcement by the company was to put “the proposed new plant indefinitely on hold,” said Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, the top-ranking Republican in the state Senate.

While the governor’s office said it would continue to work with the German manufacturer, spokesman Dan McLagan added that the state also will “entertain other possible suitors” for the site.

To pave the way for the van plant, the state already has spent $60 million for grading, drainage and construction of a four-lane road. McLagan said that money hasn’t been wasted.

“Everything that’s been spent has been generic — the kind of thing any company would need,” he said. “It remains a viable megasite for any number of industries.”

In Savannah, businesses were optimistic some other company would jump at the site, which is at the intersection of two interstate highways and just minutes away from Savannah’s port and airport.

“I’m sure we’ll have someone interested in that,” said Ric Wagner, director of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.

Wagner wouldn’t name any companies that have expressed interest, but said, “We’re not starting completely from scratch now.”

Pooler Mayor Buddy Carter said he was devastated by the news at first but sure that another high-paying manufacturer will come.

“We’re gonna get a lot of jobs, and they’ll be good jobs. We just have to be patient,” he said.