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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

Michigan looks abroad

There was a time when Michigan politicians might have looked askance at putting out a welcome mat for one of the big foreign auto companies, especially in a state that has long been the fortress of the Big Three automakers, and especially a foreign competitor in a position to challenge General Motors for the position of No. 1.

That view, however, may be changing.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has made it clear she would like to see Toyota locate its new engine plant to Michigan. Sluggish sales and flagging fortunes at General Motors and Ford, which have already hurt the economy of the Wolverine State, have prompted the governor to review the situation.

In so doing, she simply is joining the ranks of American motorists who see no problem in buying foreign-nameplate cars, which they see as high-quality products.

That may cause some heartburn for UAW workers and their union brethren, who may rail at Wal-Mart's anti-union stand but also flock to the retail giant, which offers lower prices than most other retailers.

Pragmatism makes sense in this case. Wooing and possibly winning a Toyota engine plant, one which makes the one component of a car that few people spend much time looking at anyway, could make eminent sense for Michigan.

It would provide engines for other Toyota plants in Indiana and possibly Ontario, both geographical neighbors of Michigan. "We've got to transform Michigan," the governor said. "Change is imperative."

Nothing new there. Other governors have been preaching the same economic gospel, and Ohioans, who also have a huge stake in the domestic auto industry, nevertheless welcomed Honda as a good corporate neighbor.

Toyota already has a $150 million design center in the Ann Arbor area, a project which the governor went to bat for. A UM study last fall said that the state's "old manufacturing economy is dying, slowly but surely."

Again, that's no news for any governor of a state in the industrial heartland. But winning a Toyota facility would be of enormous significance for Michigan, whose economy has been lagging. One new auto component assembly plant there would not by itself bring about a new industrial renaissance, but it wouldn't hurt either.

For Toyota, which like other foreign car manufacturers has tended to stay away from areas of heavy union representation, it would be a practical gesture that no one could misrepresent.

Detroit has misplaced much of its lobbying efforts by opposing fleet fuel averages and other causes that are now coming back to haunt the industry.

All U.S. auto manufacturers, while reserving the right to battle each other on the assembly lines and in the showrooms, would do well to join together in persuading Washington policymakers that leaving the burden of rising health costs on the shoulders of employers only helps to deindustrialize America.

Foreign car manufacturers, especially Toyota, have done exceedingly well in the United States, but their workers will grow old and retire, too.

Sooner or later, foreign auto producers must face up to and deal with the economic vicissitudes of the nation that put the world on wheels, as their Detroit competitors already are doing.



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