Officials celebrate start of Yokohama construction

September 24, 2013 10:09:19 AM

Nathan Gregory - [email protected]


WEST POINT -- "Some people say Mississippi's a club," Joe Max Higgins said Monday. "Mississippi is a family, and we've got new family members in the house today, folks." 


Higgins, the Golden Triangle Development Link CEO, was referring to Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi. Company, state and local officials broke ground on what will be one of the largest tire plants in the country during a ceremony at the Prairie Belt Powersite in Clay County. In about two years, the facility will open its doors for 500 workers. 


The $300 million investment from the corporation and $70 million in state general obligation bonds will become a one-million square foot tire-making facility October 2015. In another eight years, with another $900 million investment by Yokohama, the facility will have expanded to 115 acres under one roof. Eight years and more than 400 megawatts of power will be available at the site. It has the capacity to provide 7.5 million gallons of water and 2.5 gallons of wastewater treatment per day. 




A great partnership 


For West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson, it was like being "a kid who's been waiting for Christmas, and now it's Christmas morning."  


For Yokohama Tire Corporation President Hikomitsu Noji, it was a red- letter day for the future of his company. 


"I can't explain just how much this plant means to us," Noji told the crowd. "Our industry is conditioned for solid growth in the future. We'll no longer wait and continue sitting on the sidelines, not having our own manufacturing facility right here in the United States." 


The next year will be crucial on Mississippi's end to make sure the plant opens on time. Georgia-based firm Kajima Associates/Architects & Engineers has already been selected to oversee the plant's design, but basic infrastructure takes the forefront now. West Point selectmen will open bids from contractors vying for water and sewer installation. Next month, Clay County supervisors will start the bidding process for road construction. The infrastructure itself is slated to be complete late next year with plant construction, product testing and production to follow. The gravel lot, which will soon be graded, will be a city in itself with a population of sub-contractors and construction workers. 


About 40,000 truckloads of dirt will have to be hauled during the first phase of construction alone. That might cause some strain on county roads in the short term, supervisor Lynn Horton said, but in a county whose unemployment has been the highest in the state in recent years, the sacrifice will be worth it. 


"We hope everybody will understand what's about to take place," he said. "We're moving forward and better days are yet to come." 




A look back 


The event also provided an opportunity to reflect on what took place behind the scenes to bring the company to the Golden Triangle. Higgins was quick to thank the many organizations, state and local leaders involved, including Tombigbee River Valley Water Management District; the Mississippi Development Authority; 4-County Power Association; the Appalachian Regional Commission; and Deloitte Consulting, Yokohama's advisory firm.  


Governor Phil Bryant, Miss. Sen. Roger Wicker and Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper were all on hand for the event. The state legislature was recognized for its near-unanimous support of an incentive package for the company in April. 


During a Link luncheon earlier this summer, Higgins detailed the events leading to that day, beginning with Clay County signing the dotted line to partner with the Link in April 2012. Partners were brought in to review the location that would become the megasite. The water management district secured grant funding so the Link could complete due diligence studies. 


In December, Yokohama representatives visited the site for the first time. They stayed about an hour. Link officials had that amount of time to get their foot in the door. 


In the next two months, they hosted more and longer on-site visits. They boarded a plane to Asia on Valentine's Day, visiting corporate headquarters and plants for a week. They learned the Monday after they returned from the trip that they would host Yokohama Rubber Company Chairman and CEO Tadanobu Nagumo. He wanted to see West Point, Starkville, Columbus, Mississippi State University and meet with the governor, all in a four-hour window. 


"Pretty tough, huh?" Higgins said at the luncheon. "How do you do it? Well, we did." 


They had to rent a helicopter. Not one of those "regular" helicopters, but one fit for the CEO of a global corporation. Higgins talked to Mike Hainsey, Golden Triangle Regional Airport Executive Director. Hainsey knew where Higgins could rent a Sikorksy S-76. 


"Anybody know what that is?" Higgins asked. "I'll tell you what it is. It's $27,000 a day. I said, 'We'll take one.'" 


Heavy rain had fallen in the days before Nagumo was to visit, causing a logistical problem for landing the helicopters. They couldn't land on the site itself because they would sink into the mud. They would run into power lines if they tried to land on East Hazelwood Road, which runs by the plant. 


4-County CEO Joe Cade stepped in and solved that problem, agreeing to take the power lines down and replace them after the visit. 


"We re-routed our power around another way to feed all the houses. We took two strands of line down so the helicopters would come in and fly where the lines were and land on the highway," Cade said Monday. "That's what we're here for. That's our job is to do things like that." 


Cade also had the area blocked off from traffic with trucks and signs indicating utility work was being done.  


"When you see these guys get off a helicopter, they look just like you think they're going to look," Higgins said. "Bad-ass and important. You know they're somebody when they walk in. We couldn't have a bunch of rubberneckers out there looking." 


No detail was neglected. The visitors received warm moist wash cloths wrapped up for them to wipe their hands. They were served Japanese tea. Each visitor had custom galoshes with his name on them. The helicopter landed and they walked into a heated tent with storyboards telling them everything great about the 1,100-acre megasite. They hopped on four-wheelers for a 45-minute tour of the site. 


"That, in my opinion, is where we won the deal because that was the day we gave them the story," Higgins said. "We said, 'West Point is the toughest town we know...It's there I told the chairman that this was a community and a town that had four generations working at Sara Lee and if they only gave us a chance, we'd have four generations working at Yokohama."  


In April, Yokohama officials came back again, this time to the governor's mansion, where they announced they had chosen Mississippi over two other locations. The whole process took just four months. 




A look ahead 


After Monday's ceremony, MDA executive director Brent Christensen said Yokohama's arrival will likely bring with it other economic development opportunities for the area surrounding the site and for Mississippi in general.  


"It puts you on the map. It's a tribute and testament to the leadership of the community that they have the bandwidth and commitment to make a project like this happen," Christensen said. "I think it will pay dividends for many years to come, not only for this project but for others that may be attracted because of what they've seen in the kind of business climate and the kind of service Yokohama has gotten and will continue to get." 


In echoing that other opportunities will come, Bryant said he and state leaders will work to make sure the state has a "business-to-business" model going forward. 


"Generations hence will look back at this day and say that is the day that my opportunity began, perhaps not only to be a manufacturer in this great plant, but to be part of the leadership team," he said. 


Counsul-General of Japan in Nashville Motohiko Kato said the event marks the forging of a long-term partnership that will be pivotal for the future of both Yokohama and economic growth in Mississippi for years to come. 


"By selecting Mississippi for construction of the first totally new plant in the United States, Yokohama is saying they have confidence in Mississippi's potential," Kato said. "I know this plant will stand as a shining example of what is possible here in Mississippi."

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.