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Foreign Investment Spurs Region's Employment Prospects

IN Marysville, Ohio, this question is a teaser. Is Honda a Japanese or American company?

"We're a Japanese company, but we're ... American workers."

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"I would say it's an American company."

"This is a `Japanese' company but it's about as American as you can get."

"We look at Honda as an Ohio company."

"It's an American-Japanese company."

"I don't think we can say we are a perfectly 100 percent American company," says Toshi Amino, executive vice president of Honda of America. "To be honest, I don't know what the definition of an American company is."

It seems the global economy has everyone stumped. But for the heartland, it been a boon.

Besides exporting a growing share of its goods abroad, the region has benefited from an influx of foreign investment. Joint ventures in steel. Auto assembly plants. Glass factories. More than half of all Japanese foreign direct investment in autos, steel, tires, and rubber is concentrated in four Great Lakes states, says Richard Florida, a professor of management and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

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"Foreign direct manufacturing investment has played an important role in the region's economic revival," he wrote in a 1992 report called "Rebuilding America: Lessons from the Industrial Heartland." The region "is now home to a large concentration of the world's best companies from the United States, Japan, and Europe."

The arrival of Honda has certainly aided this part of northwest Ohio. Marysville and surrounding Union County have been transformed from an agricultural and small-industry economy to a bright star in the constellation of Ohio counties. From 1980 to 1990, per capita income more than doubled here - the largest percentage increase in the state. By 1990, the average salary was $30,547, highest of Ohio's 88 counties. Housing starts increased nearly twentyfold.

The income from Honda has rippled through the rest of the local economy, says Mary Bearden, who heads the county's Office of Economic Development. "I don't have a vacant storefront" in Marysville.

It's not clear Honda can continue such growth in the next few years, Mr. Amino concedes. Its growth has occurred at Detroit's expense, critics say.

But the success of Honda and others has forced American automakers to retool. Some of their plants now look as good as the Honda facilities here. Last year, the Ford Taurus became North America's best-selling car, taking over from the Honda Accord.

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