Toyota celebrated the start of Corolla production at its newest U.S. auto plant Thursday after a lengthy delay that the car maker blamed on a weak economy.
The ceremony formally marked the start of production last month, almost five years after Toyota Motor Corp. announced in February 2007 that it would build a sprawling facility in Blue Springs, a tiny town in the sparsely populated hills of north Mississippi.
Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, on hand for the ceremony, blamed the setback on the economy but said the time was now right for production.
It is the 14th plant in North America for the Japanese company, which builds 12 models in North America, including the Camry, RAV4 and Tacoma pickup. Together, they account for nearly 70 percent of Toyota's U.S. sales.
Toyota first planned to build the Highlander SUV in Mississippi, then the gas-electric Prius before settling on Corollas. Production was originally planned for 2010.
Gov. Haley Barbour said he never lost confidence in Toyota and supported the company's decision to delay production.
Hundreds of plant workers erupted in cheers when the plant's first production car, a shiny black Corolla, was driven on stage in a highly choreographed event. It will go on display in the plant's lobby.
That first car was built Oct. 24, and since then about 550 more have rolled off the production line and been sent to dealerships on the Gulf Coast, said David Copenhaven, vice president of the new plant known as Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Mississippi.
Barbour said about 1,500 workers are currently employed at the plant,
The facility is expected to employ 2,000 people by next year and create hundreds of jobs for suppliers, at a time when unemployment in Mississippi hovers above 10 percent. Mississippi Department of Employment Security officials have said more than 41,000 people applied for jobs.at the plant, with applicants coming from all 82 Mississippi counties, 44 other states and Puerto Rico
Officials from three counties spent years working to lure a car manufacturer, watching as other Southern communities 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.
Barbour went to Japan to court Toyota before the Blue Springs plant was announced in 2007, and state officials quickly signed off on a $324 million incentive package.
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 only store in town.