Kia Motors' Hires Boost Economy, Spirits In Georgia Kia Motors is adding 1,000 new jobs to its auto manufacturing plant in West Point, Ga. Unemployed residents and local officials in the town of LaGrange are celebrating the news. But the unemployment rate in the county still remains higher than the national average.
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Kia Motors' Hires Boost Economy, Spirits In Georgia

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Kia Motors' Hires Boost Economy, Spirits In Georgia

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Although the news about the unemployment rate is not good, as Marilyn mentioned, there are job opportunities in some places. Kia Motors, the South Korean automaker, has been building cars in rural west Georgia for about a year now. The company recently announced it will add a thousand new jobs.

NPR's Kathy Lohr visited a town directly affected by that news.

KATHY LOHR: LaGrange is not far from the Alabama border, and only about 10 miles north of the Kia plant. The 30,000 residents here are proud of the small town feel and the picturesque courthouse square.

Mr. JEFF LUKKEN (Mayor, LaGrange, Georgia): We've got a fountain with a statue of Lafayette in the middle of it. All the shops have got all their Christmas decorations out and tonight we light our Christmas tree in the middle of the square.

LOHR: Jeff Lukken is mayor of LaGrange, and he almost always has a smile on his face. Lukken has a lot to be happy about since Kia moved to the Troup County. This was once the hub of textile manufacturing, but in recent years industries began to close, and then the recession hit.

Mr. LUKKEN: In 2009, we lost four textile plants. In 2010, we lost another textile facility and two more manufacturing plants here. So, I can't imagine what LaGrange would look like had it not been for Kia coming to locate here along with the Korean suppliers.

LOHR: The city has attracted other large industries, including Caterpillar, Duracell and a Wal-Mart distribution center, but the unemployment rate in LaGrange remains higher than the national average. Mayor Lukken says that's in part because many people moved into the area when Kia was building its plant. In a previous round of hiring earlier this year, more than 44,000 people applied for just 1,000 jobs.

Ms. KAY DURAND (Center for Strategic Planning, LaGrange, Georgia): As soon as I heard about Kia's hiring, emails went out and people were notified right away.

LOHR: Kay Durand runs the Center for Strategic Planning in LaGrange. Shes in charge of a workforce development program to give those who live in the county an advantage in getting jobs.

Ms. DURAND: Things are much better for us, whenever I look around and hear some of the other stories when there are companies going out of business and there's no replacement there. But here we've got a lot more options. There's a lot more hope for people.

LOHR: One of those applying for the new jobs is Recel Peters, who moved to the Troup County seven years ago from Atlanta.

Mr. RECEL PETERS: There's a lot of people who don't even have jobs. You know, they're hard to come by down here.

LOHR: Peters has worked in manufacturing and most recently made $22 an hour in construction. But that industry is so slow that he only works a couple of days a week now. So, he's hoping the Kia job comes through.

Mr. PETERS: You know, it's better to have - you know you got a paycheck coming each week. You know, with us contracting, you know, they might owe us $4,000 one week, but it might be a month before you get your money. And you know with this, it'll be a constant paycheck I know will be there every week. You know, that's what I need.

LOHR: Peters says he can barely wait two more weeks until he gets his first interview at Kia. The company had record sales in November, up 48 percent over last year. And that's in large part due to the popularity of the Kia Sorento built here.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LOHR: On a crisp evening in the town square at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, most say they are grateful for the Kia jobs that are helping schools and local businesses.

Mr. LUKKEN: Y'all want to throw the switch and light the tree?

Unidentified Group: Five, four, three, two, one.

(Soundbite of applause)

LOHR: Georgia Kia; other southern states, including Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, also lured foreign automakers, in part with huge tax incentives and because of a large, non-union workforce. Officials here say they're seeing the payback they had hoped for.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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