Why Toyota’s restart in Miss. illustrates a better future

The rekindling of Toyota’s $1.3 billion assembly plant project in Tupelo, Miss., is a particularly significant bellwether.

Toyota said this summer it is restarting the project to produce more Corollas in North America. Toyota’s key suppliers for the plant have begun moving forward again to equip and to hire workers for new parts plants nearby. That’s industry progress.

But there is another layer to this.

The Toyota project has been, for the past two years, a symbol of a wrecked auto industry. It has been a mammoth empty building sitting on a giant, weedy, empty plain. When Toyota stopped work on the project in late 2008, it first seemed like a story of a rare but colossal misstep by the Japanese market leader. But it came to represent much more than that.

The mothballed project suggested that the party was over for import brand expansion. It suggested that Southern states had run out of success in running away with the auto industry. The South has grown giddy with what looked like an endless stream of foreign automakers coming to invest billions in U.S. auto plants and supplier parks.

And Toyota was the life of that party.

Industry full of hope

The halted work on Tupelo suggested that the auto industry would not continue to be the big engine of economic and job growth in Southern states. After all, if expansive Toyota had run aground, what long-term hope could there be for anyone else in the business? Which, of course, is wrong.

The industry is full of hope. The American consumer market will continue to burst at the seams, adding millions of new drivers to the buying pool over time. New competitors are still longing for a North American auto factory of their own. Suppliers from around the world still wish for U.S. plant capacity.

New automakers continue to plot their entry into the American market. New factories will have to be built. New workers will have to be hired and trained and paid well to master new technologies.

The fact that the lights are coming back on in Tupelo -- a project that just 24 months ago was labeled excessive and overreaching -- should now serve as a reminder of all that hope.