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The Birmingham News
January 11, 2008

"State's automakers rev up record in 2007 - 738,832 vehicles roll off assembly lines "
by DAWN KENT, News staff writer

Alabama automakers shifted their assembly lines into high gear last year, rolling out 738,832 vehicles and setting a state record on the eve of a premier event for the global automotive industry.

Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai contributed to the all-time high by setting individual production records at their plants in Alabama, a state where no vehicles were made before 1997.

"Look at how fast we've gone from zero to 739,000," said Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office. "To do that, you've got to have the work force. It really is a testament as to how well our workers have done on these projects."

Wade and other business recruiters from the state plan to tout the success next week during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. They will meet with executives from automakers already at home in Alabama and try to woo new ones.

The latest production numbers could help Alabama climb into the top five vehicle-manufacturing states. The state now ranks sixth for U.S. car and light-truck production, according to 2006 statistics compiled by the Automotive News Data Center.

That year, the state produced a little more than 698,000 vehicles, trailing No. 5 Tennessee by about 1,300. Last year, General Motors temporarily shut down its Saturn factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., for retooling.

Overall, Michigan led the pack, with 2.3 million vehicles produced, followed by Ohio at 1.7 million, Kentucky at 1.1 million and Missouri at about 984,000.

Alabama's latest production numbers also mean the state is edging closer to its announced automaking capacity of 760,000.

Last year, Honda surpassed its 300,000 capacity with 313,957 vehicles, while Hyundai nudged closer to its capacity, also 300,000, by rolling out 250,519 vehicles.

Meanwhile, Mercedes built 174,356 vehicles last year. Officials had previously estimated capacity at 160,000, following an expansion in recent years that doubled the size of the facility.

Other sites available:

Despite the state's booming automotive industry, Wade said there is room for another assembly plant, as long as it doesn't jeopardize the success of existing facilities by interfering with work force needs.

"We absolutely have sites in other parts of the state that we believe would be perfect for another automotive plant," he said.

Among those are south Alabama properties - including one near the Dothan area and a site on Interstate 65 north of Mobile - and another that spans the Alabama-Mississippi line north of Meridian and south of Tuscaloosa.

Filling the Alabama-Mississippi site is particularly attractive to the state, Wade said, because it would create a ripple effect of jobs and suppliers across the Black Belt, bringing needed growth to that region.

Elsewhere in the state, there is a site in north Alabama's Limestone County that could handle an assembly plant, he said.

Who might move in to one of these sites? Wade's not saying, but recent international reports indicate Volkswagen is on the hunt for a U.S. assembly plant site. Sources also have said a northwest Alabama site near Guin is being eyed by Magna International Inc. for a contract assembly operation.

A truck assembly project also could happen in Birmingham, despite a report that Isuzu's plans to build in the Pinson Valley have been mothballed. Local recruiters say it's too early to give up on the project.

Beyond assembly projects, there's also supplier activity on both sides of the state. Alabama recruiters are aiming to lure suppliers for a new Toyota assembly plant in Mississippi, and they already have landed many suppliers for a new Kia assembly plant in Georgia.

ADO dinner in Detroit:

In Detroit next week, economic development agencies including ADO, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and Alabama Power Co. will host a dinner for representatives of the state's automotive companies.

The gathering, which will include prospects, is aimed at celebrating the state's success in the industry and thanking those who made it possible, Wade said.

High-paying auto manufacturing jobs are a major coup in economic development circles. In 2006, the average weekly wage for Alabama motor vehicle manufacturing was $1,302, compared with $696 for all state industries, according to data compiled by EDPA.

Also at the auto show, Honda will unveil a prototype of its next-generation Pilot, which is made in Lincoln alongside the Odyssey minivan.

Elsewhere in the state, Mercedes-Benz and its sport utilities and crossovers call Vance home, while Hyundai, with its sport utilities and sedans, has settled in Montgomery.

In addition, Toyota produces engines at a factory in Huntsville, and the assembly plants have spawned rings of suppliers.

Mercedes is credited for putting Alabama on the automaking map. In 1993, the German automaker selected the state for its first U.S. assembly plant and began producing vehicles there in 1997.

According to EDPA data, the state's auto industry in 2005 accounted for 44,834 direct jobs and 79,356 indirect jobs. In 2006, motor vehicles were Alabama's top export, at more than $4.9 billion.


 

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