Tennessean: Opinion by Nelson Andrews: Tennessee - How did we become the 'Motor State'?

Posted on April 22, 2012

How is it that 88 out of 95 counties in Tennessee have some type of automotive-supply industry?

I started reflecting on this when Senator Lamar Alexander recently donated his pre-Senate papers to Vanderbilt University. In conjunction with the donation and an exhibit, Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management hosted a panel discussion called “The Auto Industry Comes to Tennessee.”

The panel emphasized the importance of bipartisan cooperation, partnerships, collaboration and localization to economic development in our state. Besides Alexander, the panel included Bill Krueger, vice chairman, Nissan North America Inc.; Guy Briggs, retired General Motors executive and former vice president of Saturn Corporation; and Carlyle Carroll, vice president of economic development for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Each told of his role in Tennessee’s emergence as an automotive leader.

Alexander’s automotive journey began when he became Governor in 1979 and set out to raise the average family income in Tennessee. The Republican got his inspiration from an unlikely source — Democratic President Jimmy Carter. It seems that at a 1979 White House dinner for the country’s governors, Carter encouraged them to go to Japan to persuade the Japanese to make here what they sell here. So that’s what Alexander did.

In fact, during his first two years as governor, Alexander spent two months in Japan, then the fastest growing economy in the world. His selling points were not only our southern hospitality, but that Tennessee was in the center of the country from a transportation viewpoint. We made logistical sense. After Nissan it opened its Smyrna plant, its first outside of Japan, in 1983, other auto companies followed.

In 1985, when GM decided to create the Saturn brand to compete with Japanese imports it looked at several states to build the plant to manufacture it. But GM chose Tennessee. Of course, quality-of-life issues, four-lane highway access to the plant among other things were considered, but officials also surveyed local residents to see if they wanted the plant. Southern hospitality won the day as our warm welcome was a deciding factor.

Toyota also considered a plant in Tennessee while Alexander was governor. Unfortunately it chose Kentucky instead. However in1989, it opened its Denzo plant to make motors in Alexander’s hometown of Maryville.

The bipartisan effort that began when Carter advised Alexander to seek Japanese investment continues today. Regardless of party, each governor since Alexander continued efforts to grow our automotive industry.

Volkswagen located in the state two years ago, with the help of Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen. Republican Governor Bill Haslam is continuing economic policies to grow Tennessee’s already $6 billion automotive industry payroll as GM plans to increase production at its Spring Hill plant and add 100 more jobs. Volkswagen recently announced an additional 800 jobs in Chattanooga.

Thirty years ago, Tennessee had almost no auto manufacturing jobs. Today, they account for one-third of the state’s manufacturing jobs.

Detroit may be called the Motor City, but Tennessee is, indeed, the Motor State.