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Along for the Ride

June 15, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

CANTON, Miss — CANTON, Miss. -- Each workday, Yolanda Goodwin says a quick "thank you" as she arrives at the blindingly white truck plant sprawling next to Interstate 55.

If Japan's Nissan Motor Co. hadn't decided to build its first full-size pickup, and if it hadn't picked this small town for the factory, the 28-year-old single mother still might be working 70 hours a week in two jobs

At Nissan, Goodwin puts in a 40-hour week that allows her to spend evenings and weekends with her kids. She hopes to buy a new home near the plant and plans to rent out her small house 100 miles away. "Thanks to Nissan, I'm going to be a landlord," Goodwin said.

Lenny Sage, 38, is grateful, too. He runs Universal City Nissan, the nation's largest Nissan dealership, where sales are booming. He expects that the big Titan pickup and two full-size sport utility vehicles that will roll out of Canton over the next eight months will attract even more customers to his dealership on Cahuenga Boulevard.

Now he needs to make room for them all. Sage waved an arm at the curving glass in front of the tiny showroom. "We can't fit a full-size truck in there. We can't even get one through the doors," he said. So he's expanding his showroom and adding bigger auto repair areas as part of a $12-million redesign.

Economists call Goodwin's new house and Sage's remodeled dealership the ripple effect.

Nissan tossed the stone into the pond in 1999 when it decided to challenge U.S. automakers in the full-size pickup market, the last big segment still dominated by the domestic "Big Three."

The Japanese company's commitment to spend $1.4 billion to build a plant in Canton, population 13,000, kicked off a chain of events that will pump billions into the U.S. economy. And it underscores how important foreign automakers have become to this country's financial underpinnings.

Canton is the 10th Japanese auto and pickup truck assembly plant to open in the United States since 1982. More than half of Japanese passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. are made here, and Japan's automakers continue to eat away at market share held by General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, owed by Germany's DaimlerChrysler. Last year, Japanese automakers had 27.6% of the U.S. passenger vehicle market, up from 19.4% in 1982. The Big Three saw their share dip to 61.7%, down from 75.5% in 1982.

"These import carmakers are not computer companies headquartered here but making their machines in China," said Sean McAlinden, economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "They are making cars in North America with North American parts and North American workers."

The Nissan plant in Mississippi began production May 27 with the rollout of the redesigned 2004 Quest minivan. Most of the 2,000 employees were on hand to cheer; when the plant is fully ramped up in about a year, it will have 5,400 on the payroll. Annual wages and benefits will top $300 million, with production wages averaging $20 an hour -- in a state where the average is $12.84.

By McAlinden's calculations, the Nissan plant in Mississippi should spawn some 30,000 jobs across the country, about half of them in the auto industry, going to people who will make radios or suspension systems for Titan pickups or who will sell them at the company's 1,100 U.S. dealerships.

The rest of the jobs will be part of the wider ripple, spreading from support positions in Nissan's ad agency in Los Angeles and construction work at Sage's dealership to restaurant jobs near the plant in Mississippi.

Nissan expects a lot from Canton. At peak capacity, the plant should produce 400,000 vehicles a year: the Quest minivan, two versions of the Titan, two full-size SUVs and hot-selling Altima sedans.

That rollout schedule -- five vehicles in eight months -- is the most ambitious attempted by a new auto factory with an unproven workforce, said Tustin-based industry analyst James Hossack of AutoPacific Inc.

New Life for Small Town

Founded in 1834, Canton was the center of a wealthy plantation area before the Civil War, with the gently rolling terrain ideal for the cultivation of cotton. The cemetery holds a many Confederate graves and the city is home to a memorial to black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. Its tree-canopied streets and antebellum mansions draw tourists and filmmakers; the turn-of-the-century downtown of brick buildings, with a courthouse in the center of the square, was used for the Depression era-film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" starring George Clooney.

Despite a downtown renovation, Canton has been one of the poorest cities in the region. Data from the 2000 census show that its unemployment rate was 6.7% and median annual household income was about $24,000.

Now, Nissan is expected to bring big changes. Canton Mayor Fred Esco Jr. said the town's population is expected to double in the next 10 years.

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