Spartan Motor’s Inc. announcement Tuesday (Feb. 14) that it was relocating operations for its Utilimaster Corp. subsidiary proved to be a wash as far as the overall employment picture in Indiana’s Elkhart County because no jobs are ultimately being shifted out of the northern Indiana county. But for two small communities it was pivotal news, as Bristol’s fortunes rose and Wakarusa’s sunk quickly.
As reported by the Goshen News, John Forbes, president of custom vehicle manufacturer Utilimaster, announced the company would be moving from Wakarusa to Bristol, taking 600 full-time jobs and 200 temporary jobs with it.
Standing inside the massive former Odyssey Group building in the Earthway Rail Park on Bristol’s southwest edge, Utilimaster President Forbes stood in front of a knot of TV cameras and reporters and said the decision was based on creating an efficient workplace.
“This facility is 425,000 square feet,” he said. “It is a clean, newer facility than our current campus and it gives us a great opportunity to grow out business, support our customers and support our team members for years to come.”
“We are very excited about the opportunity to grow our business,” he continued. “Last year we enjoyed 46% sales growth and that allows us to be in a position to invest in the future of our business.”
The news of the move was broken to Wakarusa town officials at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. In a town that saw more than a thousand jobs swept away by the recession when Monaco Coach folded in 2008, it was another “Oh, no,” moment.
“We weren’t ready for that. It was kind of a shock,” said Jeff Troxel, Wakarusa Town Council member.
The silver lining in the announcement is that the current work force will remain intact and be able to move with the plant if workers want to make the drive north.
According to the Goshen News, just hours after the surprise announcement, Troxel said he was trying to stay optimistic as he watches another long-time local company leave his small town. He said the Elkhart County Economic Development Corp. will be working to market the Utilimaster complex, which consists of 106 acres containing 16 aging buildings.
“We are resilient,” Troxel said. “We will get through this. It’s a neat town and it is a great place for business to come. I am looking forward to moving forward and having some businesses come to our location.”
The condition and size of the Utilimaster complex is one of the reasons Forbes said the company needed to move. The Odyssey building is large, but at 425,000 square feet is smaller than the 760,000-square-feet of space under roofs at the Utilimaster location.
Forbes said he expects there will be many efficiencies that stem from the move, especially in the movement of parts and vehicles under construction, which will have a much shorter assembly line. Utilimaster vehicles now travel 2 1/2 miles during the assembly process, and Forbes said that distance will be reduced to about a half-mile.
“Today in Wakarusa we have 16 different facilities,” Forbes said. “So our product flows from building to building, not in the most efficient fashion. Putting our operations under one roof gives us a great opportunity to do things in a higher quality environment a safer environment and a more efficient environment.”
The process for the move began when Spartan Motors acquired Utilimaster in 2009, according to Forbes. He said planning began to make the company more efficient and profitable, which meant a new facility was needed. He said company officials looked at sites in Michigan, Indiana and in the South, but decided to stay in Elkhart County.
Asked what the determining factor was, he said it was the ability to keep the company’s production team intact.
But the key to making all the changes happen, Forbes said, is a package of incentives the company is asking for from state and local entities, including the Bristol Town Council.
David Ogle, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, outlined the plans with the Bristol council, which met in an informal work session Tuesday night.
Ogle said Utilimaster wants to stay in Indiana and stay in Elkhart County, although the company looked at other states before deciding on the relocation.
“We think we are competitive. We feel for Wakarusa, but it is nothing they did. It is an efficiency thing,” Ogle said.
The company will seek state and local incentives such as tax abatements and Tax Incremental Financing as it moves the operation to Bristol. The town now has two TIF districts, and may be asked to approve a third one.
Ogle said state officials are expected to act quickly on the request for aid. He said the state may be in a position to make an offer to the company within 10 days.
“We are willing to go that extra mile,” said Bristol Town Council president Floyd Lynch said Tuesday night.
“Just keep us in the loop,” he told Ogle.
The town council will hold a meeting Thursday, then another work session March 13 and regular meeting March 15.