By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday raised the prospect of Volkswagen locating its new North American headquarters in the state, only to try to walk back those comments later in the day.
Haslam was asked during a question-and-answer session at the Southern Automotive Conference about Volkswagen’s status in Tennessee in the wake of a diesel emissions cheating scandal that has rocked the German automaker.
The Republican governor responded that he has been in close contact with officials in Germany and at Volkswagen’s lone U.S. plant in Chattanooga since news of the scandal broke.
“We have a lot of hopes that Chattanooga could become not just the headquarters for North America, but really the center for operations for Volkswagen,” Haslam said. “So if something like this happens it’s obviously really concerning for us.”
When questioned by reporters following another speech later in the day, Haslam appeared to disavow those comments.
“I didn’t mean physically the headquarters,” Haslam said. “Excuse me if I wasn’t clear on that this morning — what they said is that Chattanooga is going to be the hub for all of our operations in North America.”
Volkswagen last month announced the creation of a North American region to oversee operations in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Haslam has said the newly-named head of that region, Winfried Vahland, had been scheduled to visit Tennessee before abruptly resigning last week.
Volkswagen said in a release at the time that the split stemmed from “differing views on the organization of the new group region.”
No replacement has been named for Vahland to lead the company’s response in the United States as it faces possible heavy fines from the Environmental Protection Agency for installing software in diesel vehicles to trick emissions tests.
Volkswagen’s U.S. chief, Michael Horn, remains in charge of Herndon, Virginia-based Volkswagen of America. A spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Haslam’s remarks.
Volkswagen did not say where the new North American regional headquarters would be located when it was announced in September. But several foreign automakers have looked to relocate to the South in recent years to be closer to their assembly plants.
For example, Nissan in 2005 decided to move its American headquarters from the Los Angeles area to a Nashville suburb. And Mercedes earlier this year announced it would move from outside New York to Atlanta, which is also where Volkswagen subsidiary Porsche’s U.S. headquarters are based.
Haslam has visited workers and executives at the Chattanooga plant to convey the message that the “state’s not backing up on our commitment” to Volkswagen in the aftermath of the scandal.
“We also have the reality that we have 3,000 Tennesseans who are working really hard and have done nothing wrong, but are kind of carrying around the weight of all that as well as a concern about their future,” Haslam said.
State lawmakers have scheduled a hearing in Chattanooga next week to discuss Tennessee’s generous incentive packages directed to Volkswagen since the automaker chose to build its plant there in 2008. Among the topics expected to be discussed is how much money the state could get back if VW fails to deliver on its expansion promises.