The Tennessean - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
As governor, I spent almost all the state's $450,000 advertising budget to buy a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Well, Saturn finally found its home . . . in Spring Hill, Tennessee."
The ad answered a question on the mind of millions of Americans for a few days in August 1985: "Why Spring Hill, Tenn.?"
General Motors had looked everywhere for the best place to put its $5 billion Saturn plant. The biggest corporation in the world was making the largest one-time investment in U.S. history.
Three banks of GM computers analyzed 1,000 sites in 38 states. Then, so the ad went, the top brass answered the question: "Where is the best place in America to build the highest-quality car at the lowest cost, a small car that will compete with the Japanese imports?"
General Motors hadn't spent a penny yet advertising Saturn, but the intense competition for the plant made the front pages for months during 1985. As a result, twice as many Americans were able to identify a Saturn as could identify a Pontiac even though Pontiac had been building cars since 1926 and Saturns wouldn't be produced until 1990.
Governors had made fools of themselves making pilgrimages to Detroit and sitting on stools on Phil Donahue's television show arguing the merits of their states. I hadn't done that but had met GM President Roger Smith in a hotel room in Memphis after he made a United Way speech. I knew that the big Nissan plant, which had just located in Smyrna, would be either the hook or the kiss of death. So I said to Mr. Smith, "Why don't you put your plant right next to your competitor's plant and tell your union and tell your management, 'If the Japanese can do it, you can do it, too.' "
Plants boosted state incomes
That is exactly what GM decided to do. The Nissan and Saturn decisions put Tennessee on the map for companies looking for plant sites. (Nissan was the largest Japanese investment ever in the U.S.) Then, Tennesseans had almost no auto jobs and one of the country's lowest average family incomes. Today, thanks to the good work of Govs. McWherter, Sundquist and Bredesen and Tennesseans' work ethic, one-third of our jobs are auto jobs and our family incomes are a good deal higher.
The Nissan plant became the most efficient auto plant in North America and will begin making electric cars next year. Its future seems secure — and so does that of hundreds of suppliers — who have migrated to Tennessee because it is central to the American auto industry's most efficient assembly plants as well as its market, and because it is a right-to-work state with one of the best four-lane highway systems.
Saturn started off with a bang, created almost a cult following of owners but never made a profit. Its apparent death last week, when Roger Penske couldn't find anyone to make Saturns so he could sell them, is like any death — sad but full of memories.
Most of the memories are good. Saturn's life was a good life, for Tennesseans. It helped put us on the map, job-wise. It helped raise our incomes. There is still that
$5 billion plant there, with another billion or so spent to improve it, waiting for GM or someone else to make cars again. We Tennesseans will miss Saturn but are grateful for its short but good life that truly made our lives better.