Tennessee is at the heart of America's new auto industry, and Chattanooga sits in the center of that with its Volkswagen factory, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday.

"The arrival of Volkswagen and the general attractiveness of the Chattanooga area have got to make the economic prospects better than in most places in Tennessee and the nation," he said after touring the plant slated to open in early 2011.

Sen. Alexander said he hadn't visited the VW site since construction on the $1 billion plant began almost a year ago.

"Less than 12 months ago the first concrete pole went up on this property," he said. "Soon they'll be building cars."

Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, said employees already are handling the prototype, or pre-series, parts for the midsize sedan the factory will produce.

"The next step is to take the supplier parts ... and build complete vehicles here. This is a training process ... to get more experience with the car and more experience with the factory," he said in the facility's technical center where the prototype may come together.

He said the initial prototype made here should be complete about mid-year.

Mr. Fischer said about 500 people have been hired so far by VW, including about 100 production team members. VW plans to hire more than 2,000 workers.

Sen. Alexander said over 65,000 people have applied for the jobs so far.

"That's an indication of how welcome Volkswagen's arrival is," he said.

The Tennessee senator termed VW and Chattanooga "an ideal marriage," citing the region, its work force and VW's technology focus.

"I've never seen so many robots in one place," he said. Sen. Alexander spent about an hour checking out the plant, including its body shop, where workers Wednesday were testing some of the nearly 400 robots to be housed there.

He said it's hard to imagine the plant has come so far in just a year's time.

"I'm enormously impressed," the senator said. "When good jobs are at a premium, VW is bringing good jobs and more are on the way."

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey cited the pace of building the nearly 2 million-square-foot plant.

"They continue to make progress every day," he said.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said it was 355 days ago when the first concrete post was placed by workers raising the plant's paint shop.

"I saw a lot of local construction worker working hard and fast," he said.


Over 65,000 people have filed applications so far for the 2,000 jobs VW will create in Chattanooga.

Mr. Fischer said both the plant and the adjacent supplier park are on schedule.

Chris Hough, assistant manager in the body shop, said workers have started testing the welds which robots will make when carmaking starts.

"This is the first real testing," he said.

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