Kia-Ville, Georgia: A small town catches a big break

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West Point, Georgia -- population 3,500 -- was a small town with big troubles. Although its 8.6 percent unemployment rate put it below the state average of 9.7 percent, it was still facing recessionary problems that seem all too common. When the town's textile mills closed in the 1990s, the population began to leak away and business began shuttering their doors; the recent downturn only accelerated its decline. While not yet a ghost town, West Point was definitely on its way off the map.

Recently, however, West Point received some very good news. Kia, the Korean carmaker, has announced plans to open a $1.2 billion, 2,200-acre industrial park. The first new building -- a factory that will construct the Kia Sorento Sport -- has already hired 500 workers. By the time it opens, the carmaker hopes to have 2,000 more employees. With a proposed group of auto-parts factories that will employ 7,500 more workers, Kia plans to bring 20,000 jobs to the small town.
Kia's announcement has already sent ripples through the town's economy as new workers and businesses have moved here. Suddenly, a small town on its way out is poised to become a major regional employment center. (One of the new businesses is, happily, a Korean barbecue restaurant.)

While Kia's move to Georgia is particularly significant, it's hardly uncommon. Hoping to tap into tax breaks and regional pride, foreign auto manufacturers have increasingly begun moving their operations to the U.S. Cars.com, which tracks the degree to which cars are manufactured in the U.S., reports that only five of the top ten American-made cars are produced by Detroit's big three automakers. The rest, including the no. 1-ranked Toyota Camry, are Japanese-owned.

With foreign manufacturers increasingly creating American jobs -- and domestic carmakers like Chrysler getting bailed out by foreign manufacturers -- it's become almost impossible to draw a conclusive line between American and Japanese cars. It looks like toughest competitors of the American car industry may well be its ultimate saviors.

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