SMYRNA, Tenn. — Every workday for 27 years, Kathy Ward has inspected row after row of cars in various stages of assembly at the mile-long Nissan plant — the largest auto assembly plant under one roof in North America.
A Smyrna native, Mrs. Ward is not bashful about telling anyone how proud she is of her job and her company.
“We get to drive a new car every day, and we’ve never had a layoff,” she said as she pulled on a pair of white gloves to feel the joints and paint of a shiny Nissan Frontier. She’s one of a gauntlet of quality control technicians straining to find a blemish while the vehicles inch along a conveyor.
The average hourly wage among the Nissan plant’s 5,550 workers is $25, Nissan spokesman Steve Parrett said.
The workers’ good fortune — and Smyrna’s — are testament to what’s at stake for Chattanooga as Volkswagen officials consider the city as the site for a new auto assembly plant.
In Smyrna, 115 miles northwest of Chattanooga, the Nissan plant and its supporting businesses raised the town’s per capita income — even adjusted for inflation — more than $5,000, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the same 25 years Nissan and Smyrna were growing up, Chattanooga lost manufacturing jobs. The adjusted per capita wage in the former Dynamo of Dixie dropped $9,000 over the period, census figures show.
A significant amount of the income growth in areas such as Smyrna and similar patterns in Spring Hill, Tenn., where Saturn settled in the early 1980s, would be due to those automotive manufacturing jobs, said economist Matt Murray, associate director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business & Economic Research.
“These (vehicle or engine assembly plants) are going to be very good quality manufacturing jobs,” Dr. Murray said Friday. “When I say good quality, they are going to pay well and they are going to provide workers with significant fringe benefit packages.”
“And you also are going to get the proliferation of supplier jobs,” Dr. Murray added.
Such jobs from Volkswagen and the suppliers that spring up around an auto assembly plant could help replace lost manufacturing jobs here or in any community, he said.
“It can really be a important engine of new economic growth for a community,” he said. “That’s why states and communities are so hungry and so willing to put such large incentive concession packages on the table, because they see the significant economic returns associated with the company’s location.”
Chattanooga’s Enterprise South industrial park is believed to be a finalist for the Volkswagen assembly plant, along with sites near Huntsville, Ala., and a location in Michigan. Some reports indicate Chattanooga could land an engine and drive-train plant should the assembly plant not be located here.
Tennessee auto waltz
When Tennessee officials announced in 1981 that Rutherford County’s Smyrna — population: about 8,000 — had landed a Nissan plant, the event began an odyssey of auto plants to the Southeast.
Two years later, General Motors announced plans to build the Saturn plant, a brand new automotive initiative, in Spring Hill, a rural area in Williamson County where the population numbered fewer than 900 people. Spring Hill is about 39 miles southwest of Smyrna.
In the ensuing years eight more auto plants — seven of them foreign automakers — moved to the Southeast, yet Tennessee has remained a bridesmaid since the early blush of success.
The Nissan plant, completed and opened in 1983, celebrated its 25th anniversary in June, boasting 8.2 million vehicles built. The Altima, Frontier, Maxima, Xterra and Pathfinder are made at the plant.
Smyrna Mayor Bob Spivey said the growth has been phenomenal and fortuitous for his town.
“It’s all been good,” he said, adding that the newest census certification he has received put Smyna’s population officially over 38,000. “Yes, it has pressured us to build more infrastructure, but we’ve had two property tax decreases.”
The town also in recent years has gained a 100-bed hospital and lured Motlow State Community College to create a permanent home in Smyrna.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown -- Dennis Jones installs tail lights on a vehicle line at the Nissan North America manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn., on Tuesday. The facility manufactures five Nissan vehicle models and employs approximately 6,000 people.
Lifelong Smyrna resident Reginald Shannon, a cafe operator at Breaking Bread, sums up the town’s growth simply: “There used to be nothing here but the catfish house and the church.”
Mrs. Ward, the Nissan quality inspector, recalls a few more restaurants — three in all, “and a couple of stop lights” — before Nissan moved in.
“You’d just drive on through here on your way to Nashville,” she said. “My family’s lifestyle improved so much. And not just our family’s. Everyone’s did.”
Now the town has a Publix grocery store, and a second one planned, as well as several Wal-Marts, a Lowes and a Target, residents said.
Tommie Jones, who has been at the Nissan plant for 27 years, came there after leaving a state job where, in three years, she had not gotten a raise. She began in product control at Nissan, she said, and now works in the human resources department. Along the way and with the company’s help, she got a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in business administration.
“This company has given me a lifestyle I never would have had,” Ms. Jones said. “In 27 years I have never walked out of here to go home and wondered if I would have a job the next day.”
Anytime Nissan advertises to fill a few jobs in Smyrna, “1,600 to 2,000 applications flood in from all over the country,” she said. “But our turnover is incredibly low.”
Working the line
Mike Pionke, an engineering section leader, commutes from nearby Wilson County each day to and from the Nissan plant. He said Nissan workers build a car “from start to finish” in about a day and a half to two days time.
“People don’t realize how many components go into a car,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of pieces.”
If Volkswagen comes to Chattanooga, Mr. Pionke said, new workers will need to put on their seatbelts.
“The speed with which Nissan moved to introduce new models at the plant was phenomenal,” he said. “We started out with one vehicle, a pickup truck. Then we added the Sentra, then the Altima and then the Xterra.”
Last week, the line hummed with new cars in production.
Workers in the sheet-metal stamping line tended robotic cutting operations as fenders, hoods and other auto body parts were chopped out of raw, flat steel rolls. At the end of one line, a worker pulled car hoods from a conveyor and stacked them like wafers on a waiting pallet.
Further along the production line, Craig Baker put weld nuts onto the support system of a dashboard. As he worked, a homemade, roll-around music system powered by a car battery to save factory energy belted out the Bad Company song “Rock and Roll Fantasy.”
Sparks flew in front and behind Mr. Baker as he shaped the innards of someone’s new car, then turned to put his work on a platform for still more welding by the massive robot behind him. When the robot’s welding was done, the machine curled and turned to hand off the piece to still another mechanized worker.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Pionke said if Chattanooga wins the Volkswagen plant Chattanoogans should welcome it with open arms.
“There will be an economic impact,” Mr. Pionke said. “And you don’t have to be a car person to get a job. We looked for people who were trainable.”
Video: Inside NissanThe Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., is reported to be the largest auto assembly plant under one roof in North America. The complex employs 5,500 workers and is a part of a Nissan presence in Tennessee that includes an engine plant in Decherd. Here’s a video tour of the Smyrna operation.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...