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If EV’s Falter, Elkhart’s Ready to ‘Reinvent’ Again

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January 27, 2012 by   Leave a Comment

Indiana’s Elkhart County is holding out hope that Think, the electric car company that set up shop there, can be resurrected by its Russian owner.

“We want them to be successful,” said Barkley Garrett, Elkhart’s economic development director, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We’d like to see them meet all their numbers. Certainly sooner rather than later we’d like to see them up and operating, producing the vehicles they thought they would be.”

But if the car company doesn’t restart, Garrett isn’t concerned. “If they were to go away today, it wouldn’t cost the city much.”

So far, Elkhart is out only $1,500 in tax benefits given to the company.

Others believe this city of 50,000 will find a way to reinvent itself another way, as it has done throughout its history.

A few short years ago Elkhart County could have been named RV County. But as gasoline prices rose, it didn’t take long for the impact to hit Elkhart. Monaco RV, which at one point had $1.2 billion in sales making high-end RVs, was among the consolidations and closures that hit the area when it sold itself to Navistar and then shuttered local operations.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Elkhart’s RV industry thought it was making a comeback because of the renewed need for portable and temporary housing. The bulk of RV orders, however, proved an illusion, masking the fact that real demand for RVs had declined precipitously, said Gregg Fore, president of Dicor Corp., an RV industry supplier based in Elkhart.

When the county’s unemployment topped 20% in 2009, up from 4% when the RV industry was at its peak, building electric cars looked like a viable future.

“One of our strengths is we reinvent ourselves,” said Philip Penn, who heads the local chamber of commerce.

For example, the city used to be the world’s largest band instrument manufacturer. The industry employed thousands from the late 1800s until the 1960s. One manufacturer, C.G. Conn, once employed 2,000 people.

“When the whistle blew for quitting time, you didn’t want to be in the way because, man, they’d come running out of there like ants,” Penn said.

According to the Chicago Tribune, when the bulk of instrument manufacturing moved overseas, Miles Laboratories, which was founded in Elkhart and best known for Alka-Seltzer, became the city’s largest employer. At one point, more than 4,000 people worked at the pharmaceutical-maker’s 1 million-square-foot campus.

But in the late 1970s, Bayer AG of West Germany, the world’s fourth-largest chemical producer, acquired Miles. By the 1980s, the Bayer campus essentially had been abandoned.

The city sold the property, turning over the campus to the Feed The Children charity for $1. The nonprofit today occupies a fraction of the campus, and the city plans to tear down many of the buildings.

Think isn’t the only green-tech company that has promised jobs that never surfaced. Two years ago, Indiana’s governor said Elkhart County would be the home of hybrid and plug-in trucks with old RV manufacturers partnering with young clean-tech companies.

Those deals never took place.

“How many are here today? None. How many received government money? All of them. Oops,” Fore said.

The county also has dabbled in alternative energy. “We’ve had our experiences with solar, wind and electric and, to date, we’ve not see those pay the dividends Washington promised,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the county’s Economic Development Corp.

If another reinvention is in the works, Heiden-Guss says the county will have to raise the money because three visits from President Barack Obama haven’t brought much change to the unemployment rate.

Her department’s budget is scraped together from local town budgets and has just four employees, she said. “Our organization doesn’t have a dime more.”

 

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