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Jim Ross: Toyota has an important anniversary Saturday

November 30, 2018

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of a milestone in the economic history of this part of West Virginia. On Dec. 1, 1998, the Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia factory in Putnam County produced its first engines that were shipped for installation in passenger cars.

That first four-cylinder engine was placed in a silver Toyota Corolla assembled at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant at Fremont, California, on Dec. 9. The car was sold on Jan. 4, 1999, to a woman at Toyota of Richardson, a dealership in the northern Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas.

Toyota began production at its Buffalo plant ahead of schedule. At the time, TMMWV planned to ship its first engines immediately after the first-engine ceremony scheduled for Dec. 11, but NUMMI needed the engines right away, so the first group of engines was made on Dec. 1 and put on a truck for Chicago, where they were transferred to a train for Fremont.

It was a big day for the plant just outside the town of Buffalo - the first of many. Two decades ago, the plant had 125 hourly and 65 salaried employees who assembled four-cylinder engines and who were preparing to make parts for automatic transmissions. Before the end of the month, the plan was to have 200 hourly employees.

Now, after a number of expansions, the plant has 1,600 employees (or team members, as Toyota calls them) who build 650,000 four- and six-cylinder engines a year and 740,000 transmissions per year for the Toyota and Lexus models.

Toyota’s presence at Buffalo led to a number of infrastructure improvements, including the two-lane bridge across the Kanawha River near the plant. The plant required a new line for natural gas, and Buffalo got a modern sewage treatment plant, too. The water and electrical systems in the area were upgraded. All together, the Buffalo area received $100 million in infrastructure improvements because of Toyota.

Cabell County could have had the Toyota plant. The company wanted to buy land from a farmer, but the farmer was a veteran of the Pacific Theater of World War II. Plus he had grown up on the farm and didn’t want to sell it. Despite visits from some of the top VIPs in West Virginia, he refused to sell, so Toyota went with the site in Putnam County.

Later, then-U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who helped persuade Toyota to consider West Virginia, said the site near Culloden probably would not have accommodated all the expansions that came later. It was probably for the best that the farmer refused to sell, Rockefeller said.

Toyota liked West Virginia enough that it built a factory just outside the Wood County town of Williamstown to build its Hino line of commercial trucks. Last year Hino announced it would move operations to another Wood County community - Mineral Wells - where it would build a larger factory that could make larger trucks. That factory is scheduled to go into production early next year.

Those days leading up to the big announcement in May 1996 that Toyota had chosen Buffalo as the site for its plant were exciting ones for reporters. Before that event, our contact in Japan had fed us information about what was happening there regarding the decision, and we reciprocated with what we knew. We were preparing for the announcement when he called us one morning to let us know his newspaper had published his article that the decision was made to go with Buffalo. We took part of what we were working on and got it ready for the next day’s paper.

Each step after that was covered as the big story it was. After all, an international company - one of the largest automakers in the world - had chosen to locate a factory in West Virginia despite all the drawbacks of the state’s business climate at that time.

Jim Ross is the opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. He can be contacted at jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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