In mid-1995, the Interstate-64 corridor of West Virginia was a finalist as Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, as it was then called, looked for a place to build a vehicle assembly factory. We lost out when Toyota chose a site at Princeton, Indiana, north of Evansville, instead.
But it wasn’t over. Toyota needed a place to build engines for its growing North American operations and, in spring 1996, it announced it would build that factory on a large flat area just outside the town of Buffalo, in Putnam County.
At first, the plant and its 200 workers — “team members” in Toyota’s terminology — produced four-cylinder engines for the Toyota Corolla and Geo Prizm models assembled at Fremont, California. The first production engine assembled at Buffalo came off the line in early December 1998, was sent to Fremont and placed in a Toyota Corolla that was sold in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in late 1998 or early 1999.
After 11 expansions, the plant and its 2,000 team members now make engines, transmissions and hybrid transaxles. Almost 20 million powertrains have been made there since late 1998, according to Srini Matam, president of TMMWV.
It has been an investment of nearly $2 billion, so far. Matam says Toyota plans to invest another $210 million for equipment upgrades in the next couple of years.
“I don’t think most people could have imagined how much we would continue to grow over those 25 years,” Matam told HD Media reporter Fred Pace last week, as Toyota celebrated the plant’s 25th anniversary.
Toyota’s investment improved the quality of life in the Buffalo area in several ways. Because of Toyota, the state built a bridge over the Kanawha River near the plant, to help truck traffic traveling via U.S. 35. Utilities in the Buffalo area had to be upgraded, including a new sewage treatment plant.
The plant could have been in Cabell County near Culloden, but Toyota wanted a farm owned by a World War II veteran of the Pacific Theater of Operations. He refused to sell the land he grew up on or trade it for acreage elsewhere. This is a free country, and he had every right to make his decision. Later, then-U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose ties to Japan in general, and Toyota in particular, helped land the plant, said the farmer’s decision probably worked out for the best for West Virginia, as the Culloden site didn’t have room to expand the way the Buffalo site has.
West Virginia made sense for Toyota. The large assembly operation at Georgetown, Kentucky, was about three hours from Buffalo by truck, so the supply chain would not have to be built from scratch. About three hours west of Georgetown, is Princeton, Indiana.
Atsushi Honda, the Japanese journalist who broke the story that Toyota had decided to locate near Buffalo, had a theory that, in placing a factory in West Virginia, the company acquired influence with two more U.S. senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives.
West Virginia-based businesses had hoped to become part of Toyota’s supply chain, but that proved to be a difficult task, given Georgetown’s proximity and what Toyota demands of its suppliers.
All in all, there’s probably a book out there waiting to be written about how Toyota landed in West Virginia and what has happened since, if it hasn’t been already. It was good for the state, but it hasn’t been duplicated in this region. In the past quarter-century, counties in the Eastern Panhandle have landed some billion-dollar investments. For some reason, Toyota has been the exception in the half of West Virginia south of U.S. 50, instead of a trailblazer.
This is as good a time as any to mark Toyota’s success in the Interstate-64 corridor, but it’s also a time to ask why this region seems to fall short in efforts to land similar successful large-scale industrial operations.