'Toyota Town' In Kentucky Braces As Automaker Fumbles

Toyota’s problems have caused a severe fall in sales, and that means layoffs for many Americans who manufacture the cars. Host Lynn Neary discusses the impact with Karen Tingle-Sames, the mayor of Georgetown, Kentucky. It is home to a Toyota plant that generates the majority of the town’s income, and employs more than 6 thousand workers.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is not the only governor asking that Toyota be treated fairly by Congress. The governors of Kentucky, Indiana, and Alabama joined Barbour in sending a letter to congressional leaders asking Toyota get a responsible and fair response from the federal government.

Now, we're going to take a look at what it means to have a Toyota plant in your state. For over 20 years Georgetown, Kentucky, has been home to a Toyota plant. To get a sense of the role Toyota plays in that community and the reaction to the recent recalls and hearings, we are joined by Georgetown's Mayor Karen Tingle-Sames. She joins us now from member station WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky. Welcome to the program.

Mayor KAREN TINGLE-SAMES (Republican, Georgetown, Kentucky): Well, thank you so much for having me here to talk about Toyota today.

NEARY: Well, Mayor Tingle-Sames, I think you were listening to our last interview, were you?

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: Yes, I was.

NEARY: I'm just wondering what your reaction was to what you heard - that's a little sampling of what you might be - the kind of thing we're hearing on the Hill now.

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: Well, one of the points that came across was that the public has lost confidence in Toyota. And I don't believe that that is a completely accurate statement. Toyota has such a track record in their quality, and granted, now they are hitting a bump in a road, you may say, and something that they are taking very seriously, and taking it to heart, to look to see what they're going to do to fix the problem and be able to move on.

But, you know, Toyota introduced to the world a much higher manufacturing standard than really we had known before. And they will respond to this challenge just the same way to that equal standard. And Toyota is a very humble company. They don't brag about their self that much. They do kind of stay in the background. But, you know, the company has become such a close-knit part of our community that we really can't separate the Toyota plant from Georgetown itself.

NEARY: What is that relationship like between the town and the company? How does it play out?

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: Well, since Toyota came to town over 20 years ago - and we do have the largest manufacturing Toyota plant in the United States and we are the home of them starting out into the U.S. - that we produce there the Camry, the Camry Hybrid, the Avalon, and the new Venza. And we have over 7,000 employees that work at the Toyota company here in Georgetown. So, as far as Georgetown the city is concerned, 60 percent of our tax revenue comes off of that Toyota factory and the other companies that are in town that supply parts for the factory. We now have 34 percent of the team members that work at Toyota actually live in our county. And 60 percent of the employees that work at Toyota live in the Central Kentucky area. So

NEARY: So this has been a huge economic boon to you, I would think. And I'm wondering if you're worried or concerned that if things are not going so well for Toyota, it's going to cost money, it's going to cost jobs.

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: Well, it's kind of amazing. We are connected to Toyota, there's no doubt about it. And we do - as a matter of fact, the Toyota officials that are here in Georgetown that we meet with them, the elected officials meet with them on an every-other-month basis to sit down and talk about what's going on with Toyota, to also let them know what's going on in the city and the county, as the things that we do will affect them and the things that happened with Toyota affects us. The county judge executive, he has role much as mine for the county, as I am mayor for the city. We have their personal cell phone's numbers, so if anything comes up that we contact them, they contact us. So we have this great, open communication. So we're always a step ahead of knowing what's going to go on and affect our local plant, so that if it affects our economy and our numbers.

And you're right. There is always a certain amount of - I don't know that is concern, because I don't know that I have a concern for it, because Toyota has proven what they are about to our community. When the downturn in the recession happened just a few months ago and there was not car selling in the United States, Toyota never laid off any of their employees. And even if they didn't have a production day, they allowed their employees to volunteer and go out into the community and help the community with different things.

Like our local college, Georgetown College, that we have in town, they went there - volunteers from - Toyota's team members went over there and helped them paint dorms and get dorms ready for school. They came to the city and helped us do some planning at the city. They went to the county. So they took their team members, instead of laying them off, and let them come into the community in the central Kentucky area to volunteer to work and help out other organizations.

NEARY: How do people there feel about what's going on? Do they think that Toyota is being treated unfairly?

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: They think that - our community is really rallying around Toyota and behind Toyota and supporting Toyota, like you mentioned earlier, from the governor down to the mayor and everybody in between and the team members have really gotten in behind Toyota. So I think you might say that - I don't know. They are going to Capitol Hill to answer questions, and they need to answer questions. But I think on the flip side of it, and when this is all said and done, that Toyota will come out so much stronger than what they were even before this, that I think they'll make it through okay with what they're doing.

NEARY: I'm curious: Do people in Georgetown, Kentucky think of Toyota as an American company?

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: Oh, yes. We absolutely do think of it. And that was a question that has imposed to me before about it being a company from overseas. The people that work there, the 7,000 employees that work there, they're our friends, our neighbors, the people we go to church with, the people that we, you know, shop at Wal-Mart with, we do all the daily activities, our Boy Scout leaders and all that. So it's not a - it's - to us, it's an American company. And I drive a Camry, as mayor of the city. And it is a - it's an American-made car by Americans that are our friends and our neighbors.

NEARY: Karen Tingle-Sames is the mayor of Georgetown, Kentucky, home to a Toyota plant. She joined us from member station WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mayor TINGLE-SAMES: You're very welcome. Thank you.

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