WASHINGTON, Indiana - On Friday, Japanese automakers Toyota and Mazda announced a deal to build a $1.6 billion plant somewhere in the United States. Officials in Washington are hoping that somewhere is here and they are doing more than crossing their fingers in hopes of making it happen.
"We have been exchanging a lot of emails and having some discussions," said Washington Mayor Joe Wellman. "We are doing what we can to be in the discussion. We don't know anything for certain about where the plant might wind up. We are just doing what we can to be in consideration."
Daviess County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Ron Arnold stresses he has no more knowledge about the future of the Toyota-Mazda joint venture than anyone else in Daviess County, but he also points out that the city and county have already done a lot of things that put them in a position to at least compete for it.
"We spent the last one and one half years putting together those two sets of mega-site plans that could handle a large plant like that," said Arnold. "I know the Indiana Economic Development Corp. has those and that the Mayor took them to Japan and shared them with companies there."
The Toyota-Mazda joint venture basically calls for the two companies to build the plant that will result in 4,000 jobs producing 300,000 vehicles per year. Reports are that all of the vehicles will be EV (electric vehicles) with half being small sport utility vehicles for Mazda and half being Corollas for Toyota.
Some expect the plant could wind up in Mississippi near a plant where Toyota already makes Corollas, but that does not necessarily mean southwest Indiana is out of the running. Toyota has had a successful presence in Princeton since 1996 and currently employs more than 5,500 people there making Siennas and Highlanders. The company has many of its tier one and tier two suppliers nearby and has already established job training links to Vincennes University.
"Those are all things that could work in our favor," said Arnold.
Another thing that could work in our favor are some of the recent developments at the WestGate Crane Technology Park. Besides its recent agreement with Purdue University to add technical and business services, the tech park is home to an operation that is taking technology developed by the Navy for energy storage and looking for ways to make it commercially viable. With Toyota-Mazda looking to produce electric vehicles, the presence of the Battery Innovation Center could become one more peg to help attract the deal.
"The BIC is something unique to our area that could really help," said Arnold. "When the BIC was established that is what we hoped would happen."
One other thing that appears to be a positive for the area is the workforce.
"I have had some conversations with companies and they tell us that southwestern Indiana is known for its strong work ethic," said Arnold. "Workforce will be one of the challenges for any project that big."
Arnold says that although Daviess and surrounding counties have a low unemployment rate, the type of jobs that the automakers are talking about should still attract plenty of workers.
"I anticipate that a lot like the Princeton plant, the company would build up to its total employment," he said.
Officials say that when large deals like the an auto plant are in play, often local leaders are kept out of the loop until a lot of the decisions have been made.
"You never know who it is exactly going to play out," said Arnold. "It is likely they could send someone in to purchase the land first and then begin working with us to put together some of the deal."
The Times-Herald spoke with an area landowner on the east side of the city. He says that while there was some interest expressed in land several months ago, he has had no one approach him recently.
While the deal between Toyota and Mazda may have just been announced on Friday, the companies are not expected to drag their feet on the project. They intend to have the plant up and turning out cars by 2021.
"It is good to know there is a project out there," said Arnold. "Right now we don't know who will get it, but we are doing what we can and controlling what we can control in an attempt to get them to think about putting it here."
"We have done what we can to stay on top of it," added Mayor Wellman. "It is still way too early to get excited."