Brewer: Tennessee's auto sector accelerates

Brewer: Tennessee's auto sector accelerates

October 10th, 2012 Thomas Brewer in Opinion Columns

Regional automotive industry leaders will gather Thursday and Friday in Chattanooga for the annual Southern Automotive Conference at a time when Tennessee is rapidly accelerating this powerful engine of our state's economy.

In driving terms, Tennessee's auto sector has pulled in to the fast lane. Consider these major developments in the last 18 months:

• Volkswagen Group of America said in March it will add 800 new jobs in Chattanooga as capacity is expanded to meet demand for the highly successful Passat.

• Nissan will produce up to 150,000 electric motors a year for the Nissan LEAF at its Dechard powertrain assembly plant.

• Nissan's new lithium-ion battery plant, located at Smyrna, opens this fall and as one of the largest in the country at full capacity. The battery plant is located adjacent to Nissan's vehicle assembly plant, which is being retooled to accommodate production of the Nissan Leaf. Combined, Nissan LEAF and battery production will create up to 1,300 manufacturing jobs when the plants are operating a capacity.

• Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations is expanding operations, and adding jobs, to produce more truck and bus tires at its Warren County facility.

• General Motors is set revive its Spring Hill campus, once home to the innovative Saturn Corp. These include a $61 million investment to build the popular Chevrolet Equinox, and an additional $183 million to build midsize cars. The Spring Hill complex will employ nearly 2,000 people.

• In May, the Nissan-Renault Alliance and Daimler announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Dechard to produce Mercedes-Benz 4-cylinder gasoline engines for Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz models, adding about 400 new jobs.

• Magneti Marelli, a global automotive systems and components supplier, announced in June of this year a $53.7 million expansion of its Pulaski facility, leading to an addition of 800 jobs.

This summary of rapid-fire good news for Tennessee represents just the largest announcements in terms of investment and job creation, but there were many other successes.

Our auto industry has been hot the past 18 months, with large plant investments in Memphis, Clarksville, Morristown, Kingsport and other markets. The cumulative impact tallies hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and thousands of new jobs.

Today, Tennessee boasts more than 900 auto suppliers and manufacturers, including anchor original equipment manufacturers General Motors, Nissan and Volkswagen. The industry employs more than 106,000 Tennesseans.

More good news is on the way, and it is not limited to Tennessee, as will be highlighted this week at SAC. This annual meeting rotates among Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi and is attended by leaders in Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri, neighboring states experiencing success.

In the last quarter century, the South has surged forward as a hub for automotive manufacturing. Consider that when Nissan built its Smyrna plant in the early '80s, Tennessee then had just a smattering of suppliers and less than 2,000 jobs in the auto sector. The industry has migrated to Tennessee and other regional states that share many of the same qualities, including favorable business climate and geographic advantages. Automotive companies throughout the region are collaborating to build more automobiles every year. An example is the Renault-Nissan Alliance project in Dechard, which will supply engines for Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Ala. These kinds of strategic arrangements are building critical mass and increasingly positioning the South in the center of automotive manufacturing.

The mission of our conference is to build on the strong Southern foundation and advance this powerful engine for more investment, economic growth and employment.

Thomas Brewer, general manager of the Workforce Development and Conference Center at Northfield in Spring Hill, and former planning administrator for General Motors, is chairman of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association Board of Directors.