MARION, AR (AP) Hino Motors Ltd. broke ground July 22 on a vehicle parts plant that will employ 280 in the traditionally depressed Arkansas Delta –– with plans for expansion if the company’s sales meet expectations.
“This is a first step toward a new economic future,” said Kay Brockwell, Marion’s economic development director. “Our children will have a new opportunity for jobs at home. They won’t have to leave the land where they grew up.”
The jobs were welcomed with much fanfare as state and company dignitaries, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, gathered in an air-conditioned tent in the middle of a soybean field.
Hino Chairman Tadaaki Jagawa spoke, but would not say Hino would eventually build trucks or automobiles in Arkansas. He did say the expanse of land near interstate highways, rail lines and the Mississippi River would fit its needs.
“With this groundbreaking in Marion, Arkansas, we are committed to grow our market share in the U.S. and increase our important partnership with Toyota,” for which the company makes parts, Jagawa said.
And Jagawa told Huckabee, “You convinced us that your state would be a great place for this manufacturing project. Looking at this site today, I can tell you Arkansas is the perfect site for Hino.”
Jagawa then gave a “Woo, Pig, Sooie” cheer with a thumbs-up and said the plant would produce “strong and tough products like the Razorbacks,” a reference to the mascot of the state’s largest university.
Huckabee said Hino’s arrival marked a transition in a long-suffering region. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in Crittenden County, where the plant is to be built, was 8.3 percent in May. The statewide rate in June was 6.3 percent, figures showed.
“Today, we establish a new tradition in the Delta, one that is as strong as the barbecue is good,” Huckabee said. “It’s a tradition of good jobs for good people who have long deserved them.
“It’s not just about the fact that a plant will be built and jobs will be created. It’s what the jobs represent,” Huckabee said. “Jobs mean opportunities for families. Moms and dads can provide better education for kids and better homes.”
Hino, based in Tokyo, in May tapped Marion as the site of a plant employing 280 people making differentials and rear-axle- and suspension-related parts for 300,000 Toyota vehicles a year. The plant is expected to open in October 2006.
Also in May, Hino officials said that, if the company is able to expand sales of its own trucks in this country, a truck-assembly plant could be added at the 160-acre site. Sources told The Associated Press that an assembly plant is assured for somewhere near the parts plant, though the timing isn’t known.
Jagawa said that construction of an assembly plant is contingent on its market growth.
“At this point, we don’t have an assembly plant planned here,” Jagawa said through an interpreter. “However, if sales of Toyota trucks increase dramatically or if Hino brand sales increase here, we will think about plans for expansion. At this point, Marion City is a great candidate for this expansion.”
Brockwell said she expects that an assembly plant will eventually be built here.
“They’re just starting to enter the market,” Brockwell said. “If they will build that market, they may increase their manufacturing capacity in the United States. I really think it’s going to be a ’when’ as opposed to an ’if.’”
At the July 22 announcement, Hino also announced a $100,000 donation to the Marion School District and the city of Marion to build tennis courts at the school.
At the groundbreaking, the Crittenden Arts Council Children’s Choir sang songs in Japanese and English, swaying back and forth and bowing to the audience when they finished. Afterward they helped plant a Japanese cherry tree, one of a grove that company officials donated to be planted on the site.
Toyota owns 50.1 percent of Hino, which has led the Japanese medium and heavy-duty truck markets for 31 years. But only this year did Hino start producing in Japan a new modified model for U.S. sales.
Kanji Fujimoto, a senior managing director of Hino, said in May that a full truck manufacturing plant at Marion would require sales of the company’s American trucks to reach 10,000 units a year, while current sales are at 3,000 a year.
At the site on July 22, an air-conditioned, red-topped tent rose above surrounding cotton and soybean fields and caterers stood by to feed the dignitaries after the late-morning ceremony. Behind a stage stood a sign reading: “Hino –– On The Move With Marion, Arkansas.”
The site is being developed with the help of a $1.5 million grant to Marion from the federal Commerce Department, Huckabee said in May.
The Hino plant is being built next to a larger site that was considered but passed over by Toyota last year. Toyota decided instead to build a new truck plant near San Antonio, amid the strong Texas truck market.
Crittenden County is fighting a recent Environmental Protection Agency determination that the region has poor air quality –– a designation that could affect Hino’s decision to ultimately build an assembly plant near here.
AP Photo: (L-R): Tadaaki Jagawa, chairman of the board of Hino Motors, Lindsay Blake, 9, and Shea Mathis, 11, help plant a cherry tree during a Hino Motors groundbreaking ceremony on July 22, 2004, in Marion, AR. The new manufacturing facility will initially produce parts and components for Toyota vehicles.