Toyota announced yesterday that it would spend $100 million over the next four years to develop the automaker’s North American research headquarters in Ann Arbor – a move that could employ 35 researchers over the next four years.

The project would expand Toyata’s current 100-acre, 500,000-square-foot facility in the northern part of the city.

Noburo Kikuchi, a mechanical engineering professor at the University and director of the Toyota Central Research and Development Laboratories in Japan, will direct the new institute.

According to the Japanese automaker’s statement, the institute will hire 10 researchers this year and add 20 more by 2010.

Michael Flynn, a research scientist emeritus in the University’s Transportation Research Institute, said it is not “terribly surprising to hear” that Toyota was pumping money into the struggling Michigan economy by establishing the institute.

“Some might even ask why not three months ago,” he said.

Flynn said the investment could quiet the auto industry’s naysayers temporarily.

“The auto industry is in trouble, but it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “By investing in the area, it helps to blunt the critics.”

The move, which comes just months before Toyota is slated to open its 1,000 employee, $187 million technical center in nearby York Township, could spur future business moves with the University, according to Flynn.

“This is definitely good news for the University,” he said citing the University’s strong Japanese Studies and Economics departments. “My guess is there will be a lot of opportunities opening up here over the next decade.”

Gov. Jennifer Granholm said the acquisition of the research institute is a sign that the state is rebounding from its economic hardships.

“Toyota’s decision to establish the Toyota Research Institute in Ann Arbor to direct research activities for North America is another piece of good news for Michigan,” she said in a written statement.

University President Mary Sue Coleman echoed Granholm’s belief, saying the deal would boost the state’s economy.

“Toyota’s research will help our economy grow while also tackling some of the great challenges of our time including energy and the environment,” she said in a written statement.

Economics Prof. Alan Deardorff, who studies global economics, said the deal will mean more to the Michigan economy than the Japanese automaker for now, citing the $21 billion investment Toyota currently has in North America.

“It is certainly good for Southeast Michigan, although it is not itself a large investment (for Toyota),” he said. “It is encouraging, though, more as a signal that Toyota sees the value of automotive expertise that is concentrated in this region.”

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