Elkhart Turns from RVs to Electric Vehicles
When asked what the biggest difference is at her job since the onset of the recession, bartender Amy Picuda half-jokes, “Well, the tips suck.”
Picuda, 23, works at Mr. G’s, a bar and restaurant in Osceola, in the heart of the economically devastated area around Elkhart County, Ind., according to the Detroit Free Press.
“I think it really started about a year and a half ago,” she said. “We’re lucky we have our regulars, though. I know a lot of places that have closed down.”
Welcome to northern Indiana.
While Elkhart County’s plight is not unique, especially in a country enduring the hangover of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, this region has been hit especially hard. It has consistently had one of the worst unemployment rates in the country over the past year.
Elkhart County’s economy was bound tightly to the recreational vehicle industry and in 2008, with the recession already underway and gas prices topping $4 a gallon, the bottom fell out.
Monaco Coach Corp, a leading RV manufacturer with a plant in nearby Wakarusa took the hardest blow. The company, which employed 116,000 people at its peak, had slumped over the years to a work force of just 12,000. This included the shuttering of the Wakarusa plant, which cost the jobs of 1,400 workers. (These numbers are gross inaccuracies; at its peak, Monaco Coach employed about 6,000 with the current number employed by Monaco RV LLC being about 800 companywide — rvbusiness.com editor)
Ed Neufeldt was one of those employees. After 32 years working on the factory line at the Wakarusa plant, My boss walked in, and he was all choked up. We figured there were big layoffs coming, but he just says, “We’re shutting down.”
At 62 with only a high school education, Neufeldt found himself out of a job and with few options.
“It was bad. It still is bad,” said Phil Damico. “You have to keep in mind, at one point 60% of this region was manufacturing, with 50% of that [being] the RV business.”
Damico is the director of business growth for the nearby St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce. He had a firsthand view of the collapse. Unemployment for Elkhart peaked at 18.9% in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Damico notes that the remaining jobs are low-paying, unskilled labor such as call-center work.
By contrast, the unemployment rate was just 4.6% in 2007.
Now Elkhart County and the surrounding towns have thrown their weight behind what many hope will be their best hope to revive the industry base: electric vehiciles.
In August, President Obama visited the region to announce grants from the U.S. Department of Energy for Navistar.
Navistar acquired Monaco in June and plans to begin using its Elkhart facilities to produce zero-emission battery-powered trucks.
Meanwhile, just south of Elkhart in Wakarusa, Wil Cashen, the CEO of the Electric Motor Corp., is building what he believes is his own electric vehicle. He hopes it will not only help reinvigorate the area’s economy but tempt Americans into embracing a cleaner automotive future.
Cashen, once an engineer for Lotus, grew up in Wakarusa. Although he also has a home in Malibu, Calif., he returned to his hometown with the idea to build an electric pickup truck based on the top-selling Ford F-150.
“It just makes sense to build it here. Everyone should be here,” said Cashen, referring to other electric-car companies. “It’s not just about bringing value to the community, but for economies of scale. Everything from wiring to the dealer networks, you have right here. It just makes sense.”
Cashen expects to be making the first deliveries of the trucks by June 2010.
According to Damico, EMC’s announcement that EMC would be building their trucks in the Elkhart area “got the ball rolling” in creating interest in electric-vehicle technology. “We needed something other than RVs, but now there are even two RV companies hiring people back — Dutchman and Keystone — and interestingly, they’re building toward more fuel efficiency.”
Damico says it will take a long time before all of those high-paying jobs are back, and any real recovery is still more than a year away.
“Can we get all those people who lost their jobs back to work?” asks Damico. “I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if electric vehicles are what’s going to do it either.”
But Neufeldt, who lost his job with Monaco Coach before becoming a spokesman for Green Jobs for America, said it’s worth a try.
“This country has got to do something,” he said. “And I do believe we can have a green revolution. People are so desperate for work around here I think they’re starting to believe it.”