ATLANTA(AP) — South Korean automaker Kia Motors Corp. will open a $1.2 billion plant in Georgia, creating almost 5,500 new jobs in the state, officials announced Sunday night.

Cars will begin rolling off the plant’s two assembly lines in August 2008. The two million square foot plant will be in West Point, Ga., a town of 4,000 near the Alabama border. It will be Kia’s first U.S. manufacturing plant. Kia’s parent company, Hyundai Motor Company, already has a plant in Montgomery, Ala. Proximity to that site — combined with a $258 million incentive package from the state — helped woo Kia executives.

Gov. Sonny Perdue arrived in Seoul, South Korea over the weekend to sign off on the deal, which came at 7:55 p.m. EST Sunday.

The deal left Troup County officials elated.

‘‘I never dreamed that this opportunity would come along for Troup,’’ said Jane Fryer president of the Troup Chamber of Commerce. ‘‘This is something economic developers dream of. We’ve lost a lot of jobs in the past few years. this will help make up for those losses.’’

‘‘It’s fantastic news for all of us,’’ said Mayor Jeff Lukken of LaGrange, the county seat of Troup. ‘‘It’s just going to be a huge boost for our county and several counties around the area. It’s going to have an effect on every type of business in our area, whether you sell cars or hot dogs.’’

Perdue said Kia’s decision to locate in the state ‘‘is a testament to the tools, experience and know-how Georgia will deliver to one of the automotive industry’s leading innovators.’’

The plant will hire 2,893 workers when it opens at an average annual salary of $50,000. Another 2,600 employees are expected to work at five supply companies, which have committed to place plants in Georgia near West Point to feed parts and materials to the main plant.

Kia President and chief executive officer E.S. Chung said the company, which produces budget sedans and sports utility vehicles, ‘‘has entered an aggressive growth phase in the U.S.’’

The Georgia plant is expected to produce 300,000 to 400,000 vehicles annually.

The arrival of Kia is welcome news for Georgia, which has been hit hard by Ford and General Motors’ decisions to shutter their plants in the state as well as job slashing at corporate stalwarts BellSouth and Delta.

‘‘This is the best news that Georgia has heard in a long time,’’ Rajeev Dhawan, Director of Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said.

Dhawan said the pay scale was impressive and that such ‘‘premium’’ blue collar jobs have become increasingly rare.

‘‘The only ones coming online are through the foreign auto plants,’’ he said.

Dhawan noted that auto workers from the Ford plant in Hapeville and the GM plant in Doraville might be able to put their skills to work at the new plant, although many might have to relocate to do so.

The jobs also provide a boost for Perdue, who is facing re-election this year and has been under attack for lackluster employment numbers.

The Republican governor began courting the automaker with an October 2003 visit to South Korea. In January he hosted Kia’s president at the state Capitol.

Mississippi and Tennessee had also been pursuing the plant.

Local officials in Georgia cheered the announcement saying it would provide a major boost.

‘‘Not only will Kia bring jobs, it will drive the creation of an industry cluster that will help ensure future prosperity for the entire area,’’ Diethard Lindner, chairman of the Development Authority of LaGrange, said.

The new Kia plant will build two vehicle lines and include and engine assembly line, paint shop training center and visitor center. It will be built on 3,300 acre site at the intersection of I-85 and Webb Road in Troup County. A new interchange will be built off I-85 to make room for the plant.

The hefty state incentive package includes $75.9 million in job tax credits over five years, $20.2 million for a job training center on the site and $60.5 million to purchase and prepare the site.

West Point and Troup County are offering up $130 million in property tax abatements over 15 years.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the plant is scheduled for April 25.

Kia Motors America reported selling 18,110 vehicles in January, up 6 percent from January 2005. For 2005, Kia’s auto sales increased about 2.5 percent to 275,851 from 270,055.

The company has opened a U.S. headquarters in Irvine, Calif. that houses the company’s research and development and administrative operations.

LOCAL REACTION

The Kia Motors Corp. once considered the industrial site at Kewanee, near the Mississippi-Alabama line in Lauderdale County, as its preferred site for an automotive plant. Here’s what local officials had to say about news of the Korean automaker’s decision to locate in Georgia:



i “I’m certainly disappointed, but not surprised. Any manufacturer, but especially the Korean manufacturers, are very reluctant to name a site to begin with. And that caused some concern for me then.

The Meridian area always had a work force that was not only satisfactory but superior for Kia. I’m sorry Meridian, Lauderdale County and our surrounding regions assets ultimately did not win out. However, we still are the most marketable manufacturing distribution site in our region, including Mississippi and Alabama. There will be other hits on Meridian’s mega site.

Certainly every possible effort was made, so I feel very good about that. Our congressional delegation — state and local — have pulled out all of the stops. Unfortunately, the company made a different decision.” — Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith



• “From a local, state and federal level we have done everything to make it conducive for them to come to Mississippi. They chose not to come. The site is marketable. I think it’s one of the greatest sites in the Southeast with its Interstate and rail service. It’s a prime site. We will continue to market that site. It’s going to happen. I think it’s Kia’s loss, not the county’s.” — Lauderdale County District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood, vice president of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors



• “I’m very disappointed because I was hoping we would get that industry. After a move like this, I think we must pull ourselves up by our boot straps and support and expand our local industry through some of the mechanisms that have been discussed.

Our next move is to go to work on our local small businesses. We have a lot of small businesses — with a little financial support, push and guidance they could blossom all over the place.” — State Rep. Charles L. Young, D-Meridian



• “It’s a disappointment. It’s certainly not a surprise, we’ve been hearing that the plant may locate in Georgia for some time. We made a real strong bid for it. Our site’s a superb site. I don’t know that it will be an automotive assembly plant but I believe something substantial will be locating in Lauderdale County, probably at that site.” — State Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian



• “I don’t think we could have done anything different. I think the Mississippi Development Authority and our local people have done about all they can do. There’s going to be opportunities down the road. It’s a great location and it was two states working together. Something else will come down the road.” — State Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian



• “Obviously this announcement comes as no surprise, we were aware of the activity in Georgia. Kia’s original plans to build a 2,500-employee plant increased to 5,000.

The qualities that drew Kia to East Mississippi have not changed. The 1,400-acre Kewanee site offers a strategic location for automotive companies wishing to locate assembly, engine or transmission plants on the I-20 corridor in close proximity to existing original equipment manufacturers and suppliers.

Kia’s initial interest has drawn national attention to our community. The financial incentives that were made available to Kia under the Gulf Opportunity Zone should be attractive to other companies. More importantly, we know we have a premiere site situated at a crossroads of two major interstates and two Class 1 railroads.

In addition, we have a plentiful supply of labor that has been documented by two independent studies within 100 miles of Meridian — 1.4 million people within 100 miles of Meridian and 1.6 million people within 100 miles of Nissan.

We’re still confident that the Kewanee site will be attractive to the automotive industry and that Meridian, Lauderdale County and East Mississippi experiences a Renaissance of our downtown, our retail community and manufacturing. We’re optimistic that development at the Kewanee site will occur in our future.” — Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Development Corporation

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