Honda Poised to Choose Factory Site in the Midwest

Several small Midwestern towns are anxiously waiting to find out where Honda plans to build its new manufacturing plant. Honda has chosen five possible sites, all of them in small Midwestern towns. One town in Indiana has pulled out all the stops in order win the competition.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Right now, executives at Honda headquarters in Japan are trying to decide where to build their next big assembly plant in the United States. They've narrowed the field to nine places in the Midwest. The new Honda plant means a $400 million investment and thousands of jobs. It's like a lottery that only one town can win.

NPR's Adam Davidson visited one of the more promising sites and has this report.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Pretty much everyone in town says that if Honda comes to Greensburg, Indiana, it will be the biggest thing that ever happened there. Well, at least since the tree.

DAVIDSON: Now, what's the tree?

Mr. MARK GRAVELY (Tree County 1330 WTRE AM): What's the tree? Now, how long have you been here? That is our claim to fame. The tree growing out of the courthouse.

DAVIDSON: Mark Gravely is a host on the local AM radio station, Tree Country 1330, WTRE. It's hard to get too excited about the famous tree. It looks like a shrub growing out of the slanted roof of the tall tower in the center of town. But that's exactly the point.

Greensburg is attractive because it's not filled with all sorts of new excitement. Most of its charms are proudly old-fashioned, says Jennifer Sturges, who runs the Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. JENNIFER STURGES (Greensburg/Decatur Chamber of Commerce): You could describe us as a typical Mayberry town when you look at our very picturesque downtown, with the variety of local merchants you've got across the street from us.

DAVIDSON: There's the old diner, the general store. This could be a movie set for the ideal American small town, so it might surprise some to learn that this town is eagerly courting a Japanese company.

Ms. DEE KANEVEN(ph) (Resident, Greensburg): Oh, this is Dee Kaneven and I'm hoping that we get the Honda plant. It would be great for the community.

DAVIDSON: WTRE has been airing Honda testimonials.

Mr. AL HOLT(ph) (Resident, Greensburg): I'm Al Holt and I sure hope they decide to come to Decatur County.

DAVIDSON: In short, the town has gone sort of Honda crazy. There are signs in store windows welcoming Honda. The local paper has had several editorials praising Honda. There's a rumor, still unconfirmed, that somebody shaved a Honda logo in their hair. And in the biggest Honda courtship event, more than 300 residents assembled on the town square to form the Honda logo with their bodies. The picture came out great and they used it as the cover for a big book of letters telling the company just how much they'd be appreciated in town.

Not that long ago, Honda or any foreign car maker wouldn't have been welcome here. Pete VanBaalen publishes the Greensburg Daily News.

Mr. PETE VANBAALEN (Greensburg Daily News): I know of stories where people, you know, would key a car, you know, things like take a key and scrape along the car if it was a Toyota or whatever the case might be.

DAVIDSON: This part of Indiana has long been Ford and General Motors territory. A lot of people worked for those companies or their suppliers, and people are loyal. Even today, on a tour of Greensburg's largest parking lot, there's not a foreign car to be found.

Mr. VANBAALEN: You've got Dodge, Chevy trucks, a Mercury, Astro minivan, Chevrolet, Pontiac Aztec. You know, I'm seeing, there aren't a lot of foreign cars.

DAVIDSON: In the 1988 Indiana governor's race, Lieutenant Governor John Mutz lost after his opponent attacked Mutz's efforts to woo Japanese car companies to Indiana. He was accused of selling out this all-American state. But lately, Japanese car manufacturers are the only ones hiring. Frank Manus, Mayor of Greensburg, has several American flags in his office. He also has a sculpture of a bald eagle clutching an American flag and he always wears an American flag lapel button.

Mr. FRANK MANUS (Mayor of Greensburg, Indiana): Well, I'm all-American. It's a thing with me. I always wear the button on the side of my suit, just to remind me that this is America.

DAVIDSON: He says he and Greensburg have not lost any of their patriotism, but his desire to land the Honda plant has been building ever since he first learned the company might be interested.

Mr. MANUS: Yeah, I picked that phone up and would you believe it? It's the governor. I never did get a call from the governor, you know.

DAVIDSON: That was just three months ago. Things have been moving fast since then. Honda, he says, could solve the town's biggest problem.

Mr. MANUS: We have a lot of people graduating each year in our city. They basically move away unless they're farmers or something of that nature. We don't have that many jobs available in this area to entice the people to stay, so with this company coming to town, we would have.

DAVIDSON: Like much of rural America, Greensburg is getting older and smaller. It's an irony that these days the best way to keep alive a quintessentially American town may be to invite foreign investment. But here's the thing about foreign investment. It's unlikely that anyone at Honda headquarters will be swayed by all that local boosterism. They don't pick plant sites based on logo photos or wacky haircuts. And the folks in town know that. Jennifer Sturges said the photo shoot was more for a local audience.

Ms. STURGES: What's something we can do to let our community feel involved and part of the process and feel like it's not just, you know, three business leaders sitting in a room doing something.

DAVIDSON: But it is a distant decision made by business leaders in a room far from Greensburg. Whatever decision Honda makes, one town will be transformed and eight others will be left behind. And the truth is that none of the residents of any of these places have much influence. That's what happens when the global economy comes to town.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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