Smyrna, Spring Hill grow along different paths with auto industry

Friday, February 22, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 8
By Hollie Deese

GM employee Tom McCallum puts part kits together for sub head assembly at GM’s Spring Hill plant. The plant produces the Chevy Equinox, as well as engines and components for other GM cars.

-- Photo By Sarah B. Gilliam For General Motors

Smyrna and Spring Hill, Tennessee towns with crucial ties to the automobile industry, are seeing a surge in economic prosperity as the auto plants add more and new projects.

Nissan remains the major player in Smyrna, and once again, General Motors has Spring Hill’s back, say county politicians and regional experts in growth and development.

Nissan North America’s Smyrna plant opened its state-of-the-art paint plant in January 2013 as part of the vehicle facility that produces the Infiniti JX and electric LEAF. Also this year, Nissan plans to bring the Nissan Rogue to Smyrna from Japan for U.S. production for the first time.

“Nissan has been a magnet for growth,” says Brian Hercules, vice president of economic development at Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce. “They continue to do well and, with the increase of the Infiniti product and the electric LEAF and the battery plant, we just continue to see phenomenal growth.

“And then we also see that spin off from the different suppliers in the community,’’ he adds. “We have had several new and expanding existing businesses, and Nissan definitely is that crown jewel.”

More jobs in Spring Hill

GM announced in January that the Spring Hill plant will manufacture the front and rear bumper fascias for the redesigned and highly-publicized Corvette Stingray. Spring Hill will continue to produce the Chevy Equinox, four-cylinder engines, and other vehicle components.

The Equinox, expected to bring 1,000 jobs to the area, has Spring Hill buzzing again. Ground has been broken for a Super Wal-Mart on Main Street. An HCA medical center recently opened, and another, Maury Regional, is opening in a few weeks. Baskin Robbins, Dunking Donuts and Waffle House all have new outposts in town.

Spring Hill Mayor Michael Dinwiddie says growth will continue into 2014 with a soon-to-be announced multi-screen cinema and, possibly, a north Spring Hill exchange on I-65.

“We are growing quickly, but responsibly as well, and we look for that to continue,” Dinwiddie says. “We have just opened up the east side of the interstate for growth by putting sewer infrastructure on that side, and I think that is the future for Spring Hill – a lot of commercial and residential development east of the interstate. I don’t think that it is inconceivable for the city to double in size in the next five years.’’

GM giveth, taketh away

When the Saturn plant opened in Spring Hill in 1990, there wasn’t much in the way of retail, restaurants or residences surrounding the 6.9 million-square-foot facility.

Many employees purchased homes outside the area and commuted to work while the Maury County community grew to accommodate the influx of activity surrounding the manufacturing plant.

“The city grew up after General Motors came, and it spawned the growth,” Dinwiddie says.

The Spring Hill facility produced Saturn vehicles for nearly 17 years until the line was discontinued in 2007. The plant sat idle for more than a year until it started making the Chevy Traverse in September 2008. That production stopped again in November 2009.

“The first year I took office was when the plant went idle, and that year probably marked the lowest point, at least in recent history, for the city,” says Dinwiddie, who took office in 2009 and will not be seeking reelection this spring.

“We had more businesses close than open for the first time in history (in 2009),” he adds. “But we have grown every year since then. Building permits have increased and, just last year, we had an increase of over 25 percent from the year before. We have done really well.”

According to 2010 census data, Spring Hill experienced annual growth rates four times higher than other cities in the region. The population was just 1,464 in 1990. In 2010, it was 29,000.

30 years and going strong

Nissan is about to enter its 30th year of operation in Rutherford County,

“Nissan is experiencing a period of sales growth right now that has really trickled down to our manufacturing, and to that end, we have increased production in our Smyrna plant,” says Justin Saia, manager of corporate communications for Nissan North America, which is headquartered with 1,200 employees in Franklin.

General Motors employee Ray Smith works on interior assembly at the GM Spring Hill plant. Workers at the plant bult Saturns for almost 17 years until that line was shut down in 2007.

-- Photo By Alan Poizner For General Motors

In 2012, Nissan increased its overall production at Smyrna, Decherd (Franklin County) and Canton, Miss., plants by 14 percent from 2011.

The company also shifted the production of the Frontier compact pickup from Smyrna to Canton, and is making plans to bring production of the Sentra to Canton, as well. In addition, Nissan will be bringing the new Nissan Murano from Japan to Canton in 2014.

Saia says moving the two products from Smyrna to Canton frees some much-needed production capacity in Smyrna. Since that move, Nissan has introduced new and innovative products to the Smyrna line, including the Infiniti JX, LEAF and the redesigned Nissan Pathfinder.

“Earlier last year when we introduced the Infiniti JX to the Smyrna production line, it was the first Infiniti built in the state of Tennessee, which falls in line with our corporate model of localizing our core products,” Saia says.

“Nissan, from a corporate level right now, is really focused on building our products where we sell them, so bringing a lot of these core products that are made in Japan to U.S. to have them be built here and sold here.’’

An historic third shift

At the end of 2012, Smyrna’s Nissan plant had produced 9 million vehicles since it opened its doors in 1983. Ground was broken on the plant in 1981.

When Nissan brought Infiniti to Smyrna last year, it had to add a second shift and nearly 1,200 jobs to support the demand. Just this fall, it was announced that a third shift would be added, the first in plant history.

“That is a really significant milestone and signifies the growth in production capacity at that facility,” Saia explains.

There are more than 6,000 employees at the Smyrna plant, 3,000 of those added since 2011.

Most recently, a lithium ion battery plant that has the capacity to produce 200,000 batteries a year and the paint facility opened.

“The paint plant was replacing another facility, so we don’t have a jobs number tied to that,” Saia says. “But at this point we say that the battery plant has created 300 jobs. And that could certainly ramp up if production of the LEAF ramps up, so we have that capacity to add more jobs if we have demand that calls for that.”

Rutherford real estate grows

Real estate in Rutherford County is already doing better since the boost at the plant, with increasing growth in sales each month from the previous year.

“It’s an incredible thing, to say the least,” says Dave Patton, a Reliant Realty broker.

“In 2008, we had 29 completed houses in my neighborhood waiting to be sold, and for the last two or three months, I have woken up to the wonderful sounds of hammers. So the market has come back,” he says. “There are probably 10 houses in my neighborhood right now under some stage if construction.”

“But it is not just Nissan,’’ he adds. “I believe Nissan opened up a lot of new business and economic development in our area, which in turn led to more houses and higher per capita income numbers. A lot of that has to do with Nissan and all the ancillary businesses that came into play during that time period.”

Patton says just the talk of growth at the plant is enough to get the area excited. “It just sets fire to the rest of the people in the county, whether they are related to the industry or not, when they hear of all these new jobs,” he says. “When people see things moving forward they aren’t afraid to make a move because they don’t know what the economy is going to do.”

H.G. Cole, the owner of LubePro in Smyrna and president of the Smyrna Independent Merchants Association, has seen first-hand how large corporate businesses can hurt the small guys, but also how a corporation like Nissan can bolster independent growth.

“That’s where Smyrna is really blessed to have gotten Nissan,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many people that I went to high school with that went to work out there.

“Nissan hired Smyrna first, Rutherford County second, Middle Tennessee third and then went outside after that, and that was a real blessing back in the early days.”