Kia Plant Provides Jobs In Georgia

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Korean automaker Kia Motors officially rolls out its first car from a U.S. plant in West Point, Ga., Monday. Eventually 2,500 people will work at the facility. The plant will revitalize a region depleted of textile and other jobs. Kia is the latest foreign carmaker to set up shop in the South and the arrival is transforming the region.

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The South Korean automaker Kia Motors begins mass production of its new Sorrento today. That car is being built in West Point, Georgia, where Kia's opening its first U.S. plant. It's further proof that the South, with its non-union labor force and state government incentives, is the preferred destination for foreign carmakers. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: In the center of the small town of West Point you'll find the obligatory Southern diner with its meat and veggie plates. But you can also eat across the street at the Miso Sushi House.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

CAPELOUTO: It's lunchtime and the hostess seats a couple of Korean businessmen. They wear ID tags from the new Kia plant and mix with locals like dentist Drew Ferguson. He says the Asian presence can't be ignored in this town of 3,500 people.

Mayor DREW FERGUSON (West Point, Georgia): You begin to see it in the restaurants. The fact that we have four Asian-themed restaurants in West Point, Georgia is important. You begin to see it in the different foods that are offered. And quite candidly, just simply the personal interactions that you have are very different now. It's a lot of fun.

CAPELOUTO: Ferguson grew up here and remembers when textile was king in west Georgia. Now, he is the mayor and grateful that Kia Motors saved his town.

Mayor FERGUSON: We've learned how important every single job is and now every day we're adding those jobs, not only in the manufacturing sector but in places like a sushi restaurant in downtown West Point where we are.

CAPELOUTO: But those original 2,500 Kia jobs did not come cheap. An analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper found that state taxpayers put up $200,000 in incentives for each job created. That includes free land, tax breaks, new roads and a training center.

Kent Stewart with the Georgia Department of Economic Development makes no excuses. He says the economic impact is estimated to be worth $6.5 billion and 18,000 support jobs.

Mr. KENT STEWART (Commissioner, Georgia Department of Economic Development): These things don't just happen. Companies just don't come here. We have to go and sell to them and we have to demonstrate to them a value proposition.

CAPELOUTO: And competition is tough, especially among southern states. There's Mercedes and Hyundai in Alabama, Toyota in Kentucky, BMW in South Carolina and soon Volkswagen in Tennessee. The Kia Georgia plant is clean, shiny and smells like a new car. All the robots are painted bright yellow. Workers stand on ergo-dynamic wooden platforms, assembling the pieces together. Howard Webb works on doors. He used to be a maintenance man before learning to make cars.

Mr. HOWARD WEBB (Employee, Kia Motors): Pretty good experience. What I learned here has given me a whole different outlook on how cars are actually done, actually how they're built. So I like it much better here.

CAPELOUTO: Wages for Kia workers range from $15 to $21 an hour. And there are plenty of people who want the jobs, says Kia executive Randy Jackson. He says many workers come from the now outsourced textile industry. He says carmakers will take advantage of this idle labor force.

Mr. RANDY JACKSON (Vice President, Kia Motors Georgia): I mean, if you look at history. You know, the Detroit areas and Michigan areas was kind of all automotive. And today, if you look at the southeastern states and I would say automotive is here to stay in the south for a long time.

CAPELOUTO: And Jackson says with globalization people here don't care who owns the plant as long as the cars are made by Americans. The new made-in-Georgia Kia Sorrento will be on dealer lots in January.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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