Nebraska in running for auto plant

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A few months ago, Nebraska officials got a “blind” request for proposals for a major factory looking to locate in eastern Nebraska, meaning they weren’t told what company it was for.

Then a few weeks ago, “We found out the blind RFP was actually for Toyota and Mazda,” said Pat Haverty, vice president for the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development.

Earlier this month, the two Japanese automakers publicly revealed that they plan to partner and want to build a new U.S. plant.

The $1.6 billion plant would produce 300,000 vehicles a year, including Toyota Corollas and Mazda crossover vehicles and would employ as many as 4,000 people.

Nebraska is apparently being considered along with about a dozen other states, including Iowa and Missouri, for the plant, which the companies hope to have up and running by 2021.

LPED is collaborating with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and private companies, including utility providers and transportation companies.

“It’s really a big team effort that we’re putting together,” Haverty said.

Most new auto manufacturing plants in the U.S. have located in the traditional “Rust Belt” states such as Michigan and Ohio or in Southern states like Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

While Lincoln has the Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing plant and there are a number of automotive supply companies in the state, auto manufacturing is non-existent, and the state rarely seems to be seriously considered for such industry.

But Haverty said Nebraska has a number of factors that make it attractive, including low utility rates, good access to both Union Pacific and BNSF Railway rail lines and a workforce that is universally known for its quality

He also said the state’s low unemployment rate — 2.8 percent in July, which was fourth-lowest in the nation and the state’s lowest rate since 2000 — is not a barrier.

Most other states competing for the plant have unemployment rates of 4 percent or less, Haverty said, so it’s a pretty even playing field.

“It’s a tight labor market all around the country,” he said.

While the plant itself would employ around 4,000 people, Haverty said more than twice that many jobs could be created by suppliers, who often set up shop near where the factories are built.

It’s not known what if any specific sites are being considered, although Black Hills Energy has been rumored to be eyeing sites in Sarpy County for a facility to supply gas to a plant.

Haverty said the plant would likely have to be located near Omaha and/or Lincoln because the RFP stipulates there must be a workforce of at least 250,000 people within a 60-minute drive of the plant.

As for Nebraska’s chances, Haverty wouldn’t speculate, but he did say the fact that a consultant for the companies contacted the state, rather than the other way around, is a positive sign.

Though it might make sense for Toyota and Mazda to locate near other auto plants, Haverty said he thinks they might be looking for some “geographic diversity,” which also would be a factor in the state’s favor.