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Rockefeller's influence landed major investment in Putnam County town

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One of the biggest stories in West Virginia in 1996 was the announcement that Toyota Motor Corp. would build an engine assembly factory just outside the small Putnam County town of Buffalo.

Everyone involved with the announcement credited Sen. Jay Rockefeller with using his long-standing contacts with Toyota to persuade it to locate in West Virginia.

The plant started production in December 1998, and it has expanded several times over the years to where now it has about 1,000 employees building engines and transmissions for Toyota and Lexus models assembled in North America and in Japan.

"No doubt he was the major one to get Toyota to come to Buffalo," former Buffalo mayor Leonard Whittington said Jan. 11 on hearing the news that Rockefeller plans to retire from the Senate when his term ends next year.

Toyota's arrival meant more than the jobs that came to the plant, Whittington said. Toyota needed a bridge across the Kanawha River, so the state built one. It needed a modern sewage treatment plant, so state and other sources provide money to build one to serve both the plant and the town. Toyota needed a supply of natural gas, so now the town has gas service that it did not have before.

And the town has improved electrical and land line telephone service, too, Whittington said.

"That bridge has been a great thing and been traveled heavy," Whittington said.

"When they repaired the Winfield bridge, if we hadn't had that bridge, we'd have to travel to Point Pleasant or St. Albans to cross over the river," he said.

Rockefeller's determination to keep Toyota in Putnam County was seen when he was in town to discuss construction of the sewage treatment plant, Whittington said.

"He told me when he got ready to leave that day if ever a time things aren't going the way they should, call my office and we'll make it work," Whittington said.

That promise was tested when the town opened construction bids for the plant. The engineer had estimated the bids would come it at about $4 million, but the low bid was $7 million, Whittington said.

By that time, the project was already three weeks late, and the town, its engineers and its bond counsel were trying to decide what to do. So on a Friday evening, Whittington decided to take Rockefeller up on his offer. He called the senator's office.

"Saturday, they notified me we'd have a meeting in Charleston on Monday. The state people decided to come up with the money for the project," Whittington said.

Whittington said he was sad to hear that Rockefeller is retiring from the Senate.

"I think we're losing a great man. People that never actually worked with him or talked with him might not know just how humble he was or how interested he was in West Virginia," he said.