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What drove the Mazda-Toyota team to the ideal plant site in Alabama?

The site selection team working clandestinely on “Project New World” – the codename given to the massive auto assembly plant planned by Mazda and Toyota – started off with a list of 300 potential site locations across the United States.

In the end, a site encompassing more than 2,000 acres in Huntsville, Alabama, claimed one of the most coveted industrial prizes in years. Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA, as the venture is called, will employ up to 4,000 workers producing as many as 300,000 vehicles annually.

To secure the project, Alabama’s economic development team had to clear a lot of hurdles. Consultants from JLL Chicago worked closely with Mazda and Toyota on the search, analyzing factors such as workforce, operating environment, site specifics, logistics, incentives, and quality of life, among others.

The JLL consultants developed a screening model that aggregated scores of data points about individual sites and provided a ranking for each of them.

As the search advanced, the consultants joined representatives from the companies on site visits that took them to more than 20 states in just six weeks.

‘Project New World’

Alabama could count on some advantages in this competition.

For one thing, the state’s economic development team has been at the center of several large-scale auto projects, starting with Mercedes-Benz’s search for a U.S. manufacturing site in 1993. Over the years, the team, led by the Alabama Department of Commerce, has worked with Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and hundreds of suppliers.

In addition, Alabama’s primary workforce development agency, AIDT, has been deeply involved in helping global automakers assemble and train skilled workforces in the state. Alabama was also able to provide a competitive incentives package, though it wasn’t the largest advanced to the automakers.

Significantly, officials in Huntsville and North Alabama had previously assembled a massive parcel of land that was prepared for development. When “Project New World” showed up, they could point to a site suitable for a major assembly plant.

Plus, this tract had space to serve a buffer zone that would allow the factory to fit in with the community, an important consideration for the automakers.

“By making this plant a vibrant part of that community, we hope to work, learn and grow together with the people of Huntsville and Alabama,” Mazda Motor Corp. President and CEO Masamichi Kogai said when the companies announced their decision.

The team in Huntsville, led by the city’s economic development specialists and the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, worked around the clock to provide answers to technical questions posed by the automakers’ engineers and manufacturing executives.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, local utilities and the University of Alabama in Huntsville joined the recruitment team to lend support.

Building on Success

It didn’t hurt Alabama’s chances that Toyota already operates an engine plant in Huntsville that has gone through multiple expansions over the past 15 years. The facility has over 1,400 employees producing around 700,000 engines per year, and a $288 million expansion will add 450 workers and increase capacity to 900,000 engines annually. Workers at the facility have built more than 7 million engines in total.

“Our investment to establish a new vehicle assembly plant with Mazda builds on the very success we have enjoyed in Alabama,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said at the announcement.

Investment in the project was initially set at $1.6 billion, with an additional $830 million announced in 2020.

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said securing “Project New World” represents a massive boost for Alabama’s auto industry, which now assembles around 1 million vehicles a year even though production didn’t begin until 1997.

“In a single generation, Alabama has become a powerhouse in the auto industry, and the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA assembly facility will provide another potent catalyst for sustained growth in the sector,” Secretary Canfield said.

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