Musgrove, Lott battled over Hyundai project

By By Sid Salter
Feb. 28, 2002
The Hyundai plant courtship is one of the stranger Mississippi political stories in recent memory. After hopes were raised to a fever pitch over the last few months along the I-20 corridor, Mississippi on Monday dropped ignominiously from the running for the new $1 billion, 2,000 job Hyundai Motor Company auto manufacturing plant. It was a devastating business loss.
Company officials notified Gov. Ronnie Musgrove by phone Monday that either Alabama or Kentucky would be grabbing the brass ring for the massive economic development project. U.S. Sen. Trent Lott got the same call from the Korean automaker.
The trouble? The Clarion-Ledger's business writers have reported that Yazoo clay was problematic on the proposed plant site near Pelahatchie in Rankin County. There were also concerns over the availability of skilled labor.
Here's the back story
That's the front story. The back story? It's a little more complex.
On Jan. 13, The Clarion-Ledger broke a story that brought the back story to a head. Based on a Dec. 13, 2001, letter from Nissan North America Senior Vice President Jim Morton to Musgrove, it seemed that Nissan was steamed that Mississippi officials were courting Hyundai to locate at the Pelahatchie site a site less than 50 miles from the Nissan site in Madison County.
Morton issued a threat in the letter: "Moreover, a location within 80 miles of Canton would have a significant impact on our future consideration of any potential expansion of Canton. Further expansion of Canton is contingent on being able to obtain the necessary work force and environmental permits."
In the Morton letter, Nissan told Musgrove that if the state located Hyundai in Pelahatchie, Nissan might not expand in Canton. Lott and his staffers were selling the same message to this columnist prior to the Nissan letter going public.
For his part, Musgrove never made a public comment on Hyundai. But Bill Renick, Musgrove's chief of staff, made it clear in early January that Lott was trying to scuttle the location of Hyundai in Rankin County in favor of another site more acceptable to Nissan.
Rankin County choices
Follow the ball, readers. Here's Democrat Musgrove fighting tooth-and-nail to locate a 2,000 job auto plant in Rankin County Mississippi's Republican Valhalla while Lott, the Senate Republican minority leader, was battling to keep it out of Rankin for Nissan's sake.
On his side of the fight, Lott told this reporter in January that he believed protecting the Nissan expansion was just as important to Mississippi's future as winning Hyundai and he may be right. "The point is that with an alternate site (other than Pelahatchie), we can do both," Lott said. "We should do both."
Renick's and Lott's comments came on Jan. 10, a day before a closed-door meeting in Jackson between Musgrove and Lott in which Hyundai was the topic.
At stake in the Jan. 11 meeting was more than a consensus on the Hyundai courtship. Clearly, Lott played a strong role in the winning of Nissan. Musgrove deserves credit for guiding the Nissan incentive package through the Legislature. Both deserve the credit they crave.
The feuding leaders finally agreed to go to Korea together to make a final pitch. But the fact that Musgrove and Lott were at odds in the Hyundai courtship is undeniable. Lott carried Nissan's water in the deal while Musgrove was clearly willing to risk Nissan's expansion to win the new Hyundai plant prior to the 2003 election.
In this race, Musgrove drove for Hyundai while Lott drove for Nissan.

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