Smyrna, Tenn.: Worries in an Unexpected Spot

Foreign investment has created jobs, but fears of outsourcing persist.

By SHARE

Median household income: $47,699
Unemployment rate: 4.2 percent
Median home price: $186,400

For a while there, things were looking pretty good for Rick Bratcher. After seven years of drudgery on the assembly line at Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn., Bratcher cobbled together enough money to open a car dealership in 1992. Rick's Auto Sales—a blacktop lot located alongside fast-food restaurants and check-cashing joints—was steadily profitable. Bratcher sold about 100 used pickups and SUVs a year, enough to buy a home.

But last year Bratcher made just 30 sales. In the first four weeks of this year, he made none. And his concerns about the future run deeper than just the sluggish sales numbers. "All these jobs leaving the country really scares me," Bratcher says. "It's going to affect me because if people run out of jobs, how am I going to sell anything?"

Such worries are certainly understandable in places like Ohio, from where jobs have decamped en masse to overseas hubs. But it's puzzling to find them in Smyrna, a town of 34,000 near Nashville, where the opposite has occurred.

Many thought Smyrna's days were numbered in the early 1970s, when Sewart Air Force Base shut down. But the decision by Japanese automaker Nissan to build a factory there in the early 1980s galvanized the town's comeback. The plant created thousands of jobs and stimulated new industries. With 5,700 employees, Nissan remains Smyrna's largest employer and its biggest corporate benefactor. "Nissan is Smyrna," says Spencer McAllister, who works in the town.

Buyouts. While Smyrna shares the nation's economic challenges—slowing housing and commercial real- estate markets, high gas prices, and creeping unemployment—Bratcher is more troubled by what has been taking place at Nissan's 884-acre plant. Amid intense competition in the auto industry, Nissan offered a voluntary buyout plan that cut some 770 jobs at two facilities, including Smyrna's. And the company's use of temporary contract workers has the remaining full-time employees concerned they'll be pushed out to make room for less expensive labor.

Bratcher also seethes at American companies that have uprooted to foreign destinations. And ever since the buyout, he has grown increasingly worried that Nissan may follow suit. Since it is a foreign company, "it would be easier for [Nissan] to just pull up stakes and leave than a company that has been here from the beginning," Bratcher reasons.

Nissan says it has no plans to shutter its operations in Smyrna, where it has already invested more than $2 billion. (Nissan's 2007 North American sales were up about 5 percent from the previous year.) Still, Bratcher's fears reflect how globalization is rattling Americans, even in Smyrna—a community that owes its livelihood to a Japanese company's moving jobs offshore. And if folks in Smyrna can't make peace with globalization, who can?