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Amid Economic Woes, Elkhart’s Businesses are Adapting

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August 17, 2009 by   Leave a Comment

Elkhart, Ind., has many, many stories to tell.

There are stories about lost jobs and economic hardship. There are stories of people and businesses seeking to transform themselves to meet the needs of a fast-changing world

In many ways — largely thanks to visits to the region by President Barack Obama and the accompanying national media — the northern Indiana city famous for RVs and manufactured housing has become the face of the current recession, according to the Indianapolis Star.

While Elkhart is heavily reliant on the RV and housing industries, the challenges of the current economy ripple throughout the community. Elkhart County’s high unemployment rate, 16.8% in June, has actually been showing some improvement since the dark days of winter, when the rate reached around 19%.

That sort of economic stress has businesses of all sorts trying new things.

Elkhart-based Coachmen Industries’ All American Homes unit constructed a “Living Zero Home” for the U.S. Department of Energy. The demo home is on a national tour to highlight ways people can save on utility bills and energy usage.

“The actual home design that inspired the Living Zero model will be introduced through our builder network and our company-owned retail centers in mid-August,” Coachmen CEO Richard Lavers wrote in a July 30 update to shareholders.

Such initiatives could pay dividends in the years to come. The need for such new initiatives is urgent. The company’s revenue of just over $29 million for the first six months of 2009 is down a whopping 58% from the same time a year ago.

The Elkhart Truth, as the local newspaper, is well placed to tell all of those stories of hardship and hope. But the news media industry itself has been in a state of turmoil as it confronts an advertising slump and many new forms of competition from the Internet.

The Truth, however, has found itself working with MSNBC.com as part of the Internet news provider’s ongoing initiative called “The Elkhart Project.”

The project (which can be found at elkhartproject.com) includes stories, photos, videos, a blog and links to social media sites Twitter and Facebook — all of the content dedicated toward telling Elkhart’s story.

“It’s energized the entire newsroom,” said Greg Halling, managing editor of The Truth. “It’s just transformed us in any number of ways.”

“We’ve been a lot more aggressive about developing our website. . . . On a good day, we’re cranking out a lot more stuff during the course of the day than we ever did before.”

He said his staff has gained valuable experience from working with MSNBC.com’s veteran journalists in contributing content to the site.

Mike Brunker, projects editor for MSNBC.com, said there was some criticism in the early days of the project that the site was painting too dark a picture of Elkhart. But he added that working with local journalists has helped provided deeper coverage.

Halling said page views on eTruth.com, the paper’s website, have been consistently higher since the start of the collaboration roughly six months ago.

Plenty of challenges remain for Elkhart, as they do for the rest of the nation. But transformations of businesses and communities can happen.

And that’s one heck of a story.

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