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VOL. 124 | NO. 197 | Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Investor Announces $1B Auto Plant for Tunica

By Eric Smith

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Charles Wang

TUNICA COUNTY – Renowned for growing cotton and building casinos, Tunica County soon will make a name for manufacturing cars.

GreenTech Automotive Inc.’s Chinese owner on Tuesday announced plans to bring one of the most ambitious manufacturing and economic development projects in recent history to the Mid-South.

The Mississippi-based startup automobile company owned by Xiaolin (zhee-OW-lin) “Charles” Wang will build a hybrid-automotive plant on 1,500 acres at a rural Tunica County megasite, not too far from the casinos that breathed new life into the area beginning in the 1990s.

With an initial price tag of $1 billion, the project’s first phase is expected to create 1,500 jobs and produce 150,000 vehicles a year beginning in 2012.

Plans call for a later expansion of the plant to 4,500 jobs and more than 250,000 vehicles annually. No square footage of the initial plant was given at a Tuesday press conference.

Wang said the Tunica County site is a perfect fit for the startup company’s line of energy efficient vehicles because of Tunica

County’s central location, proximity to transportation infrastructure and Northwest Mississippi’s work force.

He also told The Daily News the company was attracted to the area because of the advantages that Memphis, just a few miles to the north, brings for the company’s logistic and distribution needs.

“This is FedEx’s headquarters, and we have a great partner in logistics with Mallory Alexander,” Wang said. “They have the facilities and the capabilities in both Europe and Asia, which are the two major continents where we have our technology partners.”

Friends in high places

Wang was referring to Memphis-based Mallory Alexander International Logistics, the third-party logistics company that has worked with GreenTech since February on the company’s import needs. Mallory, for example, ensured GreenTech’s four prototype vehicles made it to Tuesday’s event.

Wang went on to tout the Mid-South’s air, road, rail and river assets as integral to the company’s supply chain once work begins on the plant and once cars begin rolling off the assembly line.

“Those are very important factors when we choose a site,” Wang said.

Tunica Chamber of Commerce President Lyn Arnold echoed Wang’s comments about Memphis being an important attribute for GreenTech’s operation.

“Having a large city near you, having an international airport near you, those things are great advantages,” Arnold told The Daily News. “All the transportation networks that are in the Memphis area, all of those things are important.

Having a large city population and the amenities that the city offers are very important.”

A host of partners who made the project a reality discussed preliminary plans for the plant during a press conference at Harrah’s Casino in Robinsonville. Headlined by Wang and Arnold, the group also unveiled four prototype hybrid vehicles the company plans to build at the plant.

The company hopes to eventually build affordable cars matching lower emissions and fuel-consumption standards that President Barack Obama’s administration wants automakers to meet by 2016.

Wang said he expects the U.S. economy to rebound and for hybrid car demand to continue to rise.

United nations

GreenTech’s prototypes were built in China. They included a midsize four-door hybrid designed to get 50 miles per gallon, a zero-emissions electric car, a high-efficiency gasoline car designed to get 65 mpg and a hybrid sports coupe designed to get 45 miles to the gallon and to go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5.9 seconds.

Plans for the GreenTech project were first revealed in June, when a messy lawsuit between Wang and his former partner, Yung “Benjamin” Yeung, became public.

It’s not immediately clear how much money has been raised to make the project happen. The plan before Yeung and Wang split was to raise money through a visa program that provides foreign investors with a chance to get a visa by investing in the United States.

Taylor Beery, president of Gulf Coast Automotive Fund, said Tuesday his group is authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to work with investors in the project through the EB-5 program, which offers foreign investors two-year green cards for themselves and their immediate families for $500,000 investments.

Once jobs are created and the investors meet program requirements, they can apply for permanent citizenship. He did not say how much money has been raised.

GreenTech was formerly known as Hybrid Kinetic Automotive Corp., but that changed after Wang and Yeung split. The men fought for control of the company before reaching a settlement in July. Both said they will move forward with plans to build 1 million cars a year, though Yeung is now planning to build a plant in Alabama.

Yeung and Wang fought over the terms of their “handshake” business deal and whether they were partners or whether Wang worked for Yeung, according to filings in U.S. District Court in northern Mississippi. Each man accused the other of dubious business practices.

The lawsuit was complicated, among other things, by the fact that the name of Yeung’s company, Hybrid Kinetic Automotive Holdings, closely resembled one controlled by Wang, Hybrid Kinetic Automotive Corp. More than a dozen third parties joined in the lawsuit.

Behind the story

Yeung, also known as Yang Rong, was celebrated in China for leading Brilliance China Automotive Ltd. to become the first Chinese company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1992. He later fled China after Chinese authorities accused him of unspecified economic crimes. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Court filings in the case said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had been involved in discussions about the plan but Barbour’s office has declined to comment, citing the need for confidentiality in proposed economic development projects.

Wang said Tuesday that Mississippi Development Authority officials brought him to the Tunica site last July.

Company representatives also met with the governor; Mississippi’s two Republican U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran; and Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes Tunica County.

Former President Bill Clinton also has been active in the project, traveling to Hong Kong and introducing company representatives to heads of state at his recent global initiative, Wang said.

Because of confidentially requirements with MDA and others, the plan has been kept under wraps, Wang said.

Mississippi is home to one automobile manufacturing plant, and another is planned but is on hold.

Nissan opened its plant in 2003 near the central Mississippi city of Canton. Toyota announced in early 2007 that it would open a plant near Tupelo, in northern Mississippi, by late 2009 or early 2010. Toyota’s plans have been put on hold indefinitely amid the global economic slowdown.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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