Before Toyota came, Cassius Perry was struggling like many in this hilly, sparsely populated region of north Mississippi that's shed thousands of furniture manufacturing jobs since the 1990s. The young father of three went to school to be a barber, but ended up working for a salvage company while he held out hope for something better.
This year Perry landed good pay and health insurance when he went to work for a supplier to the sprawling new Toyota plant on the outskirts of the tiny town of Blue Springs. Hundreds have been hired, giving local leaders hope that their area will become another Southern automotive boomtown. The plant is finally set to begin production on Nov. 17, following more than a year's worth of agonizing delays.
"It changed my whole life around. I was struggling before I got this job. It made a difference for me, my family, my kids and even my church. I can pay tithing now," said Perry, 22. "The benefits make the difference. I don't want to be 30 and stacked up in medical debt."
So far, about 1,250 Toyota employees are already building test cars at the plant, and the company expects to hire another 280 this year. More will come aboard in the future, and dozens of others are employed by suppliers.
Production comes at a time when the future is uncertain for many in the state where unemployment has hovered above 10 percent. Excitement over the plant is palpable from the folding tables at the single store in Blue Springs to the halls of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson.
"It's a Godsend to us," said Mayor Jack Reed Jr. of Tupelo, the biggest city near the facility with 34,500 residents. "People around here certainly have a little more bounce in our steps now."
Officials from three counties spent years working to lure a car manufacturer, watching as other southern communities have reaped the economic spoils of new plant openings. In the past decade, foreign carmakers that opened plants elsewhere have included Nissan in central Mississippi, Toyota in Texas, Kia in Georgia and Volkswagen in Tennessee.
Gov. Haley Barbour went to Japan to court Toyota before the Blue Springs plant was announced in 2007, and state officials were glad to sign off on a $324 million incentive package.
To illustrate what a car manufacturer can do for an area, Barbour cites a Toyota plant that opened in Georgetown, Ky. in the 1980s.
"It literally changed that entire region of the state. It started with only a couple of thousand jobs and now has well over 5,000 jobs," Barbour said in a telephone interview.
"My point is, we're just starting to see the effect Toyota will have on northeast Mississippi," he said.
Georgetown Mayor Everette Varney said the Toyota plant has spurred steady growth in the Kentucky city since it was announced in 1985. The city's population has nearly tripled since 1990 to 29,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.
"Even in the downturn in the economy we experienced growth. Toyota, I mean, we just exploded," Varney said. "They have been tremendous for this city."
Analysts say one reason the South is attractive to foreign automakers is because in right-to-work states that are common in the region workers can't be forced to join unions if their co-workers unionize. Nice weather and proximity to customers in growing states are other factors.
"They pay pretty good wages so there's not much incentive to unionize. This is why the Southeast is just harvesting new jobs," said Larry Rinek, a California-based consultant with Frost and Sullivan who works with major auto manufacturers and suppliers.
The Mississippi plant sits at the edge of Blue Springs, a town of 200 that's little more than a winding, hilly road lined with modest houses, a small post office and Gentry's Grocery & Grill. The same locals sip coffee nearly every morning at Gentry's, where mounted deer hang from the walls and Toyota is a favored conversation topic. The store is packed at lunch with automotive workers.
"Things are rolling now," owner Mike Gentry said recently.
Toyota has been working with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to take job applications. MDES recently said that it has collected more than 41,000 applications for the plant, with applicants from all 82 Mississippi counties, 44 other states and Puerto Rico.
Blue Spring's leaders are studying ways to improve infrastructure, knowing they can't lure suppliers and other spin-off businesses without sufficient sewer and water systems. A few miles southeast, rental units are in demand in the town of Sherman and investors have snapped up commercial property.
But people weren't always so upbeat. Initial excitement over Toyota's announcement in 2007 turned into concern late the next year when the carmaker indefinitely delayed the start of production. The decision came after the economy tanked and Toyota was hit by the largest recall in company history. Production had originally been slated to begin in 2010.
The delay was unusual for a company like Toyota, "but given the circumstances, the economic backdrop, it was a wise thing to do," said Mike Jackson, an automotive analyst for IHS Global Insight.
People around here got worried, said Blue Springs Alderwoman Rita Gentry, whose brother owns Gentry's Grocery.
"At first there was concern that they might not open at all. To be honest with you, I had my doubts. But when I saw how much work they'd done and how much they invested in our community and schools, I knew it would open. They were just being cautious," Gentry said.
In nearby Sherman, Red and Phyliss Moore watched business boom at their Big R Drive-in restaurant while the plant was under construction. They opened a second restaurant to handle the overflow of customers, mainly construction workers. But they were soon forced to close the second restaurant when construction neared completion. Still, Red Moore says he has no regrets.
"When these things are announced, there's a lot of hype. It seemed like this town was going to be covered up with new people. Those things don't happen that fast," Red Moore said.
Some have other concerns. Buddy Cobb, 73, runs a scrap yard in Blue Springs. He's worried about increased traffic and higher taxes to build infrastructure. But he also recognizes that the slow pace of small town life and lack of jobs often force young people to leave.
Shrugging his shoulders, Cobb said, "If you don't grow, you die."
Many hope Toyota will keep young people closer to home. Toyota has committed $50 million to education in the three surrounding counties.
At East Union Attendance Center a few miles from the plant, where there are about 830 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, there's already been a slight increase in enrollment.
"We try to use that as a motivational factor to let students know about opportunities here," said East Union Principal Ray Kennedy.
There's no need to explain that to Chase Betts, a 25-year-old man from Mooreville, near Tupelo. He looked for jobs all over the South after graduating from a tool and die program at a community college. He eventually took a job teaching high school in Tupelo.
Then he found out about Toyota, the best paying job he'd found in the area that matched his skills. About a year ago he was hired in maintenance in the stamping division.
"I'm really not fond of being away from home because I'm a very family-oriented guy. It meant a lot for me to able to get a position here 25 minutes from my home," Betts said. "It means a lot to be able to stick around the family."