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Foreign automakers drive makeover of Smalltown USA

  • Story Highlights
  • First Japanese automaker began production in the United States 25 years ago
  • Honda's a "godsend" to central Ohio's economy, commerce department says
  • Tupelo, Mississippi, hopes for a similar boost when Toyota opens in 2010
  • Development brings tough competition for mom-and-pop businesses
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Kristi Keck
CNN
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MARYSVILLE, Ohio (CNN) -- Timothy Hines remembers well November 1, 1982. It was the day he helped build his first car.

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Honda has been building cars in Marysville, Ohio, for 25 years.

The Honda worker recalls the pride and sense of accomplishment he felt as the gray sedan rolled off the production line at the brand-new plant in Marysville, Ohio. The automobile marked a first not only for Hines but for Honda and Japan as well, neither of which had ever produced a car in the States.

"To get into something like that at the ground floor, there's very few people that ever get that opportunity," Hines said recalling the four-door Accord with the license plate "USA 001."

Twenty-five years later, Honda has changed the face of Marysville. The central Ohio town has become the decorated veteran of a long march from the rural Midwest into the Deep South, with foreign auto companies altering the economic landscape, and thus the fabric, of many American small towns.

As those small towns have prospered, cities synonymous with domestic production have seen the other side of the story, with money and jobs leaving the area.

Hines may feel secure -- his plant has never had a lay-off -- but Honda's arrival has generated tough times for others. New riches have spawned new competitors for mom-and-pop shops and farmland has been taken over by housing and business.

Hines is fine with the trade-off.

Coming from a farming background with no college education, he said he would have never dreamed he'd be where he is today, with 27 years experience and a steady income to provide for his family of five. Video Watch Hines describe how Honda has become his life »

Honda, he said, put Union County's little farming community on the map.

"Honda was more or less part of the community starting off," Hines said. "But I'll be honest with you -- I think Honda is the community now."

About 10,000 people work at the Marysville complex. For each job created within Honda, an additional seven jobs are created outside the company, according to "Honda's Economic Impact in Ohio," a study done by an outside firm.

Honda a 'godsend' to the area

The company has helped take Union County's unemployment rate down to 4 percent, according to Eric Philips of the Union County Chamber of Commerce. Before Honda, the unemployment rate was in the double digits.

And all across the county, there are signs of growth. Billboards advertise new real estate; bulldozers prepare the way for new shopping developments.

While growth has come in leaps for towns like Marysville, some of the former northern mainstays of auto manufacturing have seen their fortunes tumble as domestic manufacturers cut back production.

Take Flint, Michigan, for example. General Motors closed its sprawling, 2,900-employee Buick City plant there in 1999. Census Bureau population figures reflected the hit. Flint's population fell 11.6 percent between 1990 and 2000, and was projected to fall even further.

"That was the mainstay of the economy. It sort of pulled the heart out of the town. That's the only way to describe it," said Thomas Klier, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "It was devastating."

But Philips said Honda, which has invested $6 billion in Ohio, has been a "godsend."

"It's hard to express what they mean to our economy," he said.

Foreign auto manufacturers have been economic angels to other small towns, too. The Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, provided funds to help build a new high school; the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, has brought nearly 42,000 jobs to the area; BMW has invested more than $2 billion in its Spartanburg, South Carolina, facility. These are just several of many towns that understand what Honda means to Marysville. Learn about foreign auto plants in the U.S. »

Mississippi town hopes Toyota will bring similar boost

Six-hundred miles away from Union County, Ohio, there's another Union County that's hoping to write a similar story. A new Toyota plant is set to open in Blue Springs, Mississippi, just outside of Tupelo, by 2010. Photo See how Marysville has changed and what Tupelo can expect »

The young men in Ray Orr's collision repair class hope to have a future like Hines'. Each plans to apply for one of the factory's 2,000 openings.

The competition will be fierce if the Nissan plant in Canton, in central Mississippi, is any indicator. Nissan received more than 50,000 applications for its initial 1,500 openings. Human resources manager Jeffrey Webster said he hasn't hired a line worker in more than a year.

But Itawamba Community College student Keenan Hendrix, 24, who quit his job in a furniture factory and went back to school to learn about automobiles, said Orr is doing his best to prepare the class. Video Watch how Toyota is changing the way Orr teaches »

"A lot of people are even leaving furniture factories and hoping to get jobs at the Toyota factory, even without automotive experience," he said.

Classmate Corey Walls, 22, also worked at a furniture factory, but got out before it closed down.

"It just seemed like all the furniture was moving overseas but that vehicle stuff is moving over here," he said, adding that the plant will create opportunity for the new stores moving into Tupelo.

Developments a downside for some

But not everyone benefits from the growth, as Marysville can attest. The influx of people and traffic wears on a town's infrastructure. Roads that used to see only 100 cars a day now see about 2,500, according to Union County Engineer Steve Stolte.

And mom-and-pop shops fall victim to the competition of commercialism.

Tess Lashley owns Java Time, a coffee shop on Fifth Street. She said Marysville's growth has been "phenomenal."

About 15 months ago, a Starbucks opened a mile down the road from her shop.

Her business has dropped 30 percent.

"Everyone says we have the best coffee, but we don't have the drive-through. We don't have the Starbucks name," she said. "You can't stop progress. It will happen, and in the long run, it will make an impact on the community."

Marysville has seen the lion's share of its growth in the past decade and a half, Stolte said. Video Watch how Marysville's had to adjust in recent years »

In 1980, Union County had about 20,000 people, as it did 10 years later, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But by 2000, the county's population had doubled, and it now has more than 46,000 residents.

Just as farmers were replaced with factory workers, farmland was replaced as well.

As for the farm Hines grew up on -- there's nothing left of it. It's a housing development now.

"My early career pretty much is all gone now. There's nothing I can take you down there and show you. But this, to be honest with you, is my life," he said. "It's sad in a way, but the way the future holds, it's good."

With growth comes growing pains, but the opportunities, Hines said, far outweigh the setbacks. He realizes this each time his son points to a Honda car and says, "My daddy built that." His boy, Hines said, wants to be just like him.

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From Hines' point of view, Tupelo has reason to want to be just like Marysville.

"To think that something like this could come out of just an open farmland was amazing for a lot of people," he said. "Almost everybody has benefited one way or the other from Honda. Everybody. And we continue to see growth ... even to this day." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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