As An Investor, Tennessee Maintains Support For Volkswagen
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Volkswagen admitted that it did something sneaky. As we've reported, the company put software in diesel vehicles that helped cheat emissions tests. Officials from VW took their lumps testifying in Congress this month but not so at a legislative hearing yesterday in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the company has its only U.S. plant. Blake Farmer from member station WPLN says it was a lovefest by comparison.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There are certainly angry Volkswagen customers scattered around the world, ready to chuck their diesel cars that they thought were cleaner than they are. But in Tennessee, it's a different story.
PAM HURST: I still respect them. I just - I pray for them every day (laughter) that they'll come out of this because I think they will.
FARMER: Pam Hurst works for the county government in Chattanooga where she says Volkswagen's arrival in 2009 changed the city's economic fortunes. Before yesterday's hearing in front of state lawmakers, she and others happened to be gathered for a ribbon cutting outside the plant. A road was being renamed after Phil Bredesen, Tennessee's former governor who recruited VW in the first place.
PHIL BREDESEN: And I just ask everybody to at this time do like you would with any good friend or a spouse, which is, look, they've done something wrong. They've gotten in some trouble. We now settle down, and we support them and help them get through that and continue to be good partners for a long, long time to come.
FARMER: Tennessee isn't just a good friend, though. It's an investor. The state gave VW hundreds of millions of dollars when it first arrived, and taxpayers chipped in an additional $260 million to expand the plant this year. That's why state Sen. Bo Watson called a hearing to check in on that investment.
BO WATSON: Give me the correct pronunciation of your last name.
CHRISTIAN KOCH: Koch.
WATSON: Koch, well, some of us in the South might say coach.
FARMER: Christian Koch heads the Chattanooga plant. It employs about 2,400 workers at the moment. That number is supposed to nearly double when a new assembly line building an SUV is completed next year. But, Watson saw something VW's chairman said recently that made him think the expansion might be in jeopardy. He read it aloud at the hearing.
WATSON: We have initiated a further of review of all planned investments. Anything that is not absolutely necessary will be canceled or postponed.
FARMER: That's not the case for VW's U.S. plant, Koch said. The company plans to invest more in America, not less.
KOCH: I'm here today to state to the Chattanooga community and hard-working people across the state that Volkswagen's plans for expansion are on track.
FARMER: This is just what state lawmakers have waited to hear. They've already begun to downplay the company's crisis. Rep. Gerald McCormick is the majority leader in the state house.
GERALD MCCORMICK: This is a minor issue when you look at it from a historical perspective. I think six months or a year from now, people are going to look back at this, and it's just going to be an afterthought.
FARMER: After yesterday's hearing, Tennessee's economic development commissioner decided to make a personal statement of faith in Volkswagen. Randy Boyd put down a deposit to buy the first VW SUV that rolls off the line.
RANDY BOYD: I called them up and said, hey, you know, has anybody bought the first car yet? And they said, well, no. So could I buy it? And they said, well, sure.
FARMER: Asked why state officials are so chummy with Volkswagen, Sen. Watson said it's not the Tennessee way to turn on a partner.
WATSON: I guess you'd say in Southern vernacular you don't kick a man while he's down. It is not in our best interest to try and tear a company down. That doesn't help us at all.
FARMER: But, Watson says Volkswagen should also remember who's standing by it in its hour of need. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Chattanooga.
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