Friday, November 30, 2001

Auto plant? Wait and see

Mt. Orab hopes Hyundai plant won't be another letdown

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MOUNT ORAB — The most recent things locals have noticed here are the Kroger, Wendy's and McDonald's out by Ohio 32.

        But the Brown County community might one day be able to add a $1 billion auto plant to the list. Gov. Bob Taft traveled to South Korea this week to pitch the village of 2,307 as a potential site for Hyundai Motor Co.'s first American assembly plant.

[photo] Earl Blevins, owner of BB Tack and JP Tack in Mount Orab, said a car plant “would really help this town.”
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        But no one here knows anything about it — or really believes that it could happen. They've just heard it too many times before.

        Even the governor's office is staying tight-lipped, “because they asked us to,” said Joe Andrews, Mr. Taft's spokesman. “This means a lot of jobs and a lot of income for the state.”

        The 1,500 to 2,000 Hyundai jobs could mean a lot of income for Mount Orab, and that makes local residents long on enthusiasm — if short on optimism — about South Korea's largest automaker moving in.

        “Bring it on,” said Jack Jodrey, a rural Brown County resident visiting his friend Earl Blevins at JP Tack and B&B Tack in the heart of Mount Orab Thursday.

        “A car plant would really help this town,” said Mr. Blevins, B&B's owner.

        Jobs — especially within a short travel distance — have been drying up in Mount Orab.

        Harmon Sizemore IV's father and many friends were among the 300 left unemployed when Trinity Industries Inc., once the village's largest employer, closed its rail freight-car manufacturing plant last year.

        “We need some kind of jobs out here — some kind of manufacturing,” said Mr. Sizemore, a college student and assistant wrestling coach at Western Brown High School.

        Brown County's unemployment rate is above the state average — 5.1 percent, compared with 4.1 percent. And many workers are traveling almost one hour to Hamilton County communities such as Blue Ash and Sharonville.

        The area's tobacco farmers also have been hard hit. Luring a large employer like Hyundai would be a huge economic lift, said Rose Vesper, Mr. Taft's regional economic development representative for Southwest Ohio.

        “It would be a godsend,” said Ms. Vesper, who represented southeast Clermont, Brown and Clinton counties during her four terms in the Ohio House.

        The company would likely build its Sante Fe sport utility vehicle at the U.S. plant, said Mike Wall, an analyst with IRN Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based automotive forecasting firm. The Sonata is also a likely candidate.

        The Sonata and Sante Fe are Hyundai's second- and third-most-popular models, after the Elantra.

        Several Southern states are in the running for the plant, including Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, Mr. Wall said.

        According to a congressional aide, Hyundai contacted Rep. Rob Portman's office in September to inform the Terrace Park Republican that the automaker was considering a plant in Mount Orab, which is in his district.

        Mr. Portman hosted Hyundai president Dong-Jin Kim at a private meeting in the Capitol in October with other Ohio members of Congress and Mr. Taft.

        “They were pretty insistent that (the talks) should be kept quiet,” the aide said, adding that too much publicity may hurt Ohio's chances.

        The congressional aide said Hyundai would likely make a decision sometime next year.

        Ohio's central geographic location and heavy manufacturing base make it ideal for auto assembly, industry experts say.

        The Buckeye State is within 300 miles of three-fourths of the North American auto assembly plants, according to the Ohio Department of Development.

        The state accounts for about one-sixth of U.S. motor vehicle production, second only to Michigan, according to DOD data.

        More than a million cars and 800,000 light trucks are built annually in Ohio, according to 2-year-old data (the most recent available) compiled by the state.

        Mount Orab is centrally located with a rail line, four-lane divided highway and access to the Ohio River. The school district recently completed a $54 million expansion.

        But those attributes gave rise to what turned out to be the persistent rumors about other projects coming to town:

        Wal-Mart, Super Kmart, Cracker Barrel — even a Six Flags amusement park.

        At least twice, Brown County has been offered by state development officials as a prospective site for Toyota assembly plants.

        Several years ago the county was considered a finalist in Toyota's search for a truck assembly plant. That project eventually ended up in Princeton, Ind. Sites around Mount Orab were also mentioned as potential locations for a Toyota engine plant that was built in Buffalo, W.Va.

        “I've been hearing rumors for the 15 years I've been here,” Mount Orab Police Chief Bryan Mount said. “And nothing's come through.”

        Staff writers Mike Boyer, Ken Alltucker and Derrick DePledge contributed, as did the Associated Press.

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