Editor’s Note: Officials in Indiana’s Elkhart County were working this week to bring Mike Huckabee’s show, which airs Saturday night on the Fox News Channel, to Elkhart this week. Plans call for the show to be taped Saturday afternoon at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. The former Arkansas governor made an unsuccessful run to win the Republican nomination for president last year.
A leading official in Elkhart County, Ind., is lobbying state and federal legislators to target some of the federal economic stimulus money to complete work on the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart.
John Letherman, president of the Elkhart County Council, told RVBusiness that completing the conference center and showcase grounds at the Hall is on a “wish list” of 13 projects submitted to the state of Indiana in the last month and No. 4 on his personal wish list.
Private funding through the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Inc. got the Hall of Fame to its present state but further funding is drying up, leaving work on completion of the conference center, kitchen and 20-acre business showcase still on the drawing board. Cost to complete the facility is estimated at $10 million to $12 million.
Letherman has been lobbying Hoosier Congressmen Joe Donnelly and Mark Souder, whose congressional districts include Elkhart County, for a share of the $787 billion economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law on Feb. 17.
No funds have come Elkhart’s way thus far, but Letherman is still hopeful.
“If they are passing out money, we should be getting a large share because the New York Times says we’re ‘at the white hot epicenter of the recession’ and everyone knows the New York Times doesn’t lie,” he said. “Congress gave huge loans to the auto companies and they are still in business. Nobody gave anything to Elkhart County RV manufacturers and we lost a huge part of our business base because when sales slowed they just shut down and many went out of business.
“The fastest way to get back is to start selling RVs and getting them financed.”
Letherman, a prominent Republican at the local and state level, said he can make a persuasive argument why the community deserves the money for this and other capital improvement projects. He favors the Hall project because work to complete it could put hundreds of people to work and, once completed, the facility would give the RV industry an excellent venue to showcase its products.
“I know some people may think producing a venue is less important than taking care of unemployed people, but the best way to get people back to work is to start selling RVs again,” Letherman reiterated. “If we create a good venue to showcase RVs and a conference center where 1,000 people can sit down to eat, neither of which we have now, this will be good for Elkhart County in the long-term.”
A leading Midwestern caterer told the Hall of Fame staff that a facility able to seat 1,000 people for a meal could draw as many as 20 functions within the first year of operation.
Letherman, formerly employed in the RV industry but now a commercial realtor in Elkhart, said the finished Hall of Fame site would be an excellent location for the annual Midwest RV Show sponsored by the Indiana Manufactured Housing Association-Recreation Vehicle Indiana Council (IMHA-RVIC). That show is currently staged at the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds.
“Those guys who are still in business when this (recession) is all over with are going to need a venue to show their products, other than in the field behind the animal pens at the fairgrounds,” Letherman said. “The fairgrounds are a great place for 4-H projects and a midway. However, it is just not in my mind a proper place to be trying to showcase the outstanding RV and MH products that Elkhart County.”
Dennis Harney, IMHA-RVIC executive director, agreed that the completed Hall of Fame grounds would be a good venue for the Midwest Show and other manufacturer events.
Letherman said the Hall of Fame complex could broaden its appeal and become an “industrial showcase” for the region.
“There are people in Detroit who would like to bring shows down here because there are few venues with this kind of quality and exposure,” Letherman said. It also would help the community retain some of the business and social events that end up going to other communities because Elkhart County does not have a suitable facility, he added.
Letherman noted that Elkhart County government is known for being frugal in its spending.
“Both local government and the Hall of Fame know how to do a big project like this,” Letherman said, referring to careful spending on big projects. “The Hall, for its part, has raised almost $12 million and has built the finest facility in the Elkhart County Community, all with donated funds.”
Letherman has run his proposal by the Hall of Fame management and received its support. Heritage Foundation spokesman Tom McNulty called Letherman “a champion of the Hall” since before it opened and praised his efforts to get funding. However, he stressed that the foundation will not undertake partial completion of the conference center and won’t finish the show grounds until the money is in hand.
“My board has mandated we are not building anything until we have the money and that is how it should be,” he said.
Also, knowing where to go to get the economic stimulus funding could prove problematic.
“All of the stimulus money is being channeled through federal agencies or the state,” explained Tom Byers, Elkhart County administrator. “Nobody knows what the rules and regulations in getting access to these funds are. The criteria are being put together now.”