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Was it worker quality after all? 

When Toyota announced it would build sports utility vehicles in Tupelo, Miss., rather than Marion in the Arkansas Delta, certain courtesies apparently were honored.

Company officials told Arkansas officials they’d developed late concerns about air quality standards that close to Memphis with the heavy big truck traffic on Interstate highways 40 and 55, which intersected nearby.

People wondered why Toyota hadn’t thought about that before.

Then Toyota’s people went to Tupelo and declared that they’d been lured by the wonderful labor force.

A few days later, Gov. Mike Beebe was talking about all this to me by phone, and caught himself. “If Toyota is telling us the truth,” he began. Then he stopped.

If the Toyota people were going to be nice enough to leave unsaid that they didn’t think our people were capable, then the least we could do would be to proceed as if we had been told the whole story.

It breaks your heart to consider that we coveted that plant to bring relief to people trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty only to lose the plant because the industry didn’t trust the skills of those whose lot we were so eager, even desperate, to help.

Nobody’s saying that for a fact. But with the passage of time, the environmental factor has lost currency and workforce concern has gained. People now acknowledge that workforce concerns are real, even understandable, while stressing that they’re unfair.

Maria Haley, the state’s director of economic development, analyzed our loss of the Toyota plant for me the other day. She didn’t mention the ozone, except to say that these decisions aren’t based on single issues.

She said Tupelo had a readily available manufacturing labor force because a furniture plant had recently been lost. She said Mississippi had that Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems at Mississippi State University. She said Gov. Haley Barbour, a former business lobbyist and Republican national chairman, was “very aggressive.” She said Mississippi worked “under the radar screen” while Arkansas was covered up in public speculation, which industry officials don’t particularly enjoy. And, yes, she said, there are “pockets of workforce challenges in Arkansas,” parts of the Delta among them. She hastened to say they were belied by Nucor-Yamato’s successful experience making steel 50 miles up the road from Marion in Mississippi County.

Kay Brockwell, hard-working and long-suffering economic development director for the city of Marion, said the environmental concerns were indeed real, but only “a” factor, like Barbour’s connections during our period of gubernatorial transition. She also cited the perceived power of Mississippi’s congressional delegation and, again, workforce concerns that, she insisted, “are more perception than reality.”

Either way, she admitted, “We did not get in this condition overnight and we are not going to get ourselves out of it overnight.”

What is that condition? Statewide, one in four persons older than 25 is without a high school diploma. In the Arkansas Delta, it’s a tad more than one in three. That’s because of a culture embedded for more than a generation. If you grew up in the Delta and wanted to stay, you didn’t really need a good education to perform the only jobs available locally. If you bothered getting an education, you’d have to leave, or at least drive to Memphis, to make use of it.

In other words, the better-educated people left from necessity, lowering the educational standard of the static population, which, in turn, sent alarm signals to prospective employers. That’s why it’s called a self-perpetuating cycle.

What on earth can we do? Just keep on keeping on, trying to make the public schools better and community colleges more proficient at targeted technical training. It’s still possible Hino will eventually assemble delivery-style trucks at Marion.

Other ideas are welcomed, but be advised they’ve probably been advanced already.

Who can say what the future holds? Sometimes we forget that, a half-century ago, the Delta was the wealth capital of Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas was hillbilly poor.

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