BUFFALO — Debbie Phillips remembers sleeping on her office floor, waiting for faxes in the middle of the night.
Phillips was director of the Putnam County Development Authority 20 years ago, when officials in West Virginia were negotiating with Toyota over bringing a manufacturing plant to the state. Technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and the time difference between West Virginia and Japan could make things a little complicated.
When the faxes came in, Phillips said, she would call county commissioners and other officials, waking them up with the latest. Then, more faxes would go back to Japan.
“You did what you had to do,” Phillips said. “It is important to the community.”
Part of the urgency was because the county had to meet a deadline set by Toyota, she said. In a typical scenario, the timeline would be about five or six years, but Toyota only had 18 months to obtain permits and construct the plant.
“It was a crazy time,” Phillips said. “Everybody was excited. I’d go to my office and reporters would want to come in and interview me, and I couldn’t talk about it or confirm or deny.”
“I certainly wasn’t going to announce a plant, and people were very skeptical,” Phillips added.
“West Virginians have a fatalistic approach to life. I’d hear comments like, ‘This plant’s never coming to West Virginia,’ and I’d snap, ‘We just need to work out details.’”
Phillips remembered walking into a room of a law office in Charleston where there were 24 Toyota representatives at the table and being slightly intimidated.
“It was such a rush, because they were the best the country had to offer and I think we were the best too,” Phillips said. “They were excellent negotiators but we have good people on our side too.”
Twenty years ago today, on Sept. 18, 1996, the two sides officially got together and broke ground on the Toyota West Virginia Motor Manufacturing plant in Buffalo. Japanese and American officials planted 10 Japanese maple trees at the ceremony, which included ornamental lions and pagodas and a faux-rock waterfall.
As part of the negotiations, Putnam County gave up $10 million in property taxes — $1 million a year over 10 years, and the plant expanded before the 10-year mark was over, Phillips said. At the ceremony, Toyota announced a $500,000 donation to Putnam County schools.
She attributed much of the eventual success of the negotiations to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who had been a student in Japan and had been pushing to bring Japanese companies to West Virginia.
At the 1996 ceremony, Rockefeller said the plant made West Virginia “truly a part of the global economy.” Then-Gov. Gaston Caperton said, “The quality of the jobs, the sophisticated technology, the quality of the workplace make me even more proud to have such a world-class facility in West Virginia.”
County Commissioner Jim Caruthers said at the time that Toyota had already injected $2.1 million into Putnam County’s economy by developing roads, water and sewer systems, a bridge and a temporary office.
Jamie Barton remembers the news of the Toyota plant bringing hope. He used to ride through Buffalo growing up with his family, on the way from their Leon home to the Interstate 64 corridor when they wanted to go shopping. The field where the Toyota plant now stands was swampy, filled with dead trees and water.
“Before Toyota, it seemed like a lot of people were having to look outside of this area for jobs. Lot of jobs in this area weren’t good-paying jobs or had very good benefits,” Barton said. “Once Toyota decided to come here and build a plant here, there was a lot more hope in the area.”
Barton attended the first application acceptance day in Eleanor in 1997 and was selected for the testing process. That led to the interview process, and for Barton, a job in 1998.
Now at 44, he’s still at Toyota as a production team member in the tool reground department, where he resharpens all of the tools once they start to wear out. He’s performed this task for the last 18 years, and enjoys the challenge of working to help produce top-quality products, he said.
“[I’ve] been able to have a very good job with a great work schedule and great benefits,” Barton said. “It’s allowed me to stay here in the area and not have to go outside West Virginia to look for employment.”
Reach Laura Haight at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4843 or follow @laurahaight_ on Twitter.