Kia rides to the rescue of struggling, small town – Metro US

Kia rides to the rescue of struggling, small town

The signs you see around a small town can tell you a lot about that town.

“Beef for Dinner is Always a Winner.”

That’s on a sign just outside Paisley, Ont.. With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise anybody that they raise a lot of beef cattle around Paisley, and that the town’s annual shindig is something called “Beef Fest.”

Now consider: “Thank You Jesus For Bringing Kia To Our Town.”

That’s on a sign in the town in West Point, Georgia. From that you could correctly surmise that Kia has got something big going on in town, that the town folk are grateful for it, and that they tend to hold Jesus in high regard.

What Kia has got going on is a big and beautiful vehicle manufacturing facility worth about $1 billion (all figures in U.S. dollars).

I was fortunate to be among a group of Canadian journalists that Kia recently invited to West Point, to tour the plant, and sample its first fruit — the 2011 Kia Sorrento.

It never fails to make me feel good, to walk around a manufacturing plant watching other people work. And this one still has that new plant smell, mmmm….

The facility has been running since late November, and is now cranking out about 500 vehicles a day on one shift, with about 1,200 employees. Kia received more than 43,000 job applications for those initial plant positions. It is now hiring a second shift. If and when the plant reaches full capacity, it will employ about 2,500 and have the capacity to produce 300,000 vehicles annually. Kia suppliers on site could eventually add another 7,500 jobs.

West Point’s mayor, a dentist named Drew Ferguson, figures the area stands to gain about 20,000 jobs in total over the next five years.

But those jobs won’t come, and didn’t come, without some cost. Ferguson told us the municipality invested about $300 million — for such items as tax breaks and incentives, a $90-million water treatment plant, and a $32-million road (now called Kia Parkway).

The State of Georgia also came to the party, with a $20-million training centre built on site. Ferguson, an eighth-generation West Point native, told us that the project created lots of mixed emotions, especially among the 32 families whose farms were needed for the 2,220-acre site
“There was lots of praying, lots of crying.”

He added that even though many didn’t need the money, and wanted to stay on the land their families lived on for generations, they ended up signing the papers, “for the benefit of the community and its future.”

The area has been in steep decline, ever since the textile industries it was built around, pulled up stakes and moved offshore.

But since Kia arrived, the area is thriving.

But I wonder who, 20 years ago, would have thought that the impetus for the area’s reversal of fortunes would have been the arrival of a Korean automaker?

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.