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As Elkhart’s Electric Dream Dies, RVs are Back

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March 6, 2012 by   Leave a Comment

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a piece by NPR focusing on Elkhart, Ind., and its dashed hopes to become a center for electric vehicle production. However, things are looking up again in Elkhart as the RV industry – the longtime economic driver in the area – is seeing an uptick in sales. To read the entire article click here.   

Elkhart, Ind., is known as the RV capital of the world. The city suffered badly when the recession hit, and demand for recreational vehicles all but screeched to a halt. That’s when local and state leaders started looking for ways to bolster the area’s manufacturing industry.

Eventually, the unemployment rate in the city along the Michigan border soared to 20% — the highest in the nation at the time.

Electric cars were supposed to help revive Elkhart’s economy. President Obama visited twice, promising stimulus funds to spark a new economic engine in electric vehicles. Those jobs never materialized. But like other hard-hit factory towns in the Midwest, Elkhart is starting to improve. And its RV industry is leading the way.

A Car Factory With 2 Employees

From the outside, Elkhart’s Think Electric Vehicle factory looks deserted. There isn’t a single car in the parking lot; the doors are all locked; the windows are dark.

It’s not until you wander all the way around to the back of the 200,000-square-foot facility that there is a sign of life: one door left slightly ajar. Inside, several dozen brightly colored tiny electric cars sit in neat rows.

“All these cars are finished,” says Rodney Smith, plant supervisor for Think EV. Pointing at cars that are painted red, blue and black, he says, “They’re all finished and ready to go; we could hop in one of these and go down the road right now.”

There are about 120 of these road-ready models, called the Think City — a little two-seat fully electric coupe that has a range of about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged.

“It’s fun to work on,” Smith says of the City car. “They’re good little cars. They run great.”

But at the plant, there are 32 more cars that are not yet fully assembled, he says. They’re waiting for parts to come in; as components arrive, Smith and another worker finish putting the cars together.

“That’s currently what we’re doing; we’re just in a standby position,” he says. “We’re continuing to sell cars. We’re continuing to produce cars. It’s just the two of us that are here.”

That’s right — just two employees are working in this auto plant. At its peak, the plant employed 25 workers. Then two waves of layoffs dropped the payroll down to just two people. It’s a far cry from the more than 400 people the Think company promised it would hire two years ago.

As Electrics Struggle, RVs Surge Anew

In the meantime, Mayor Moore and many others in Elkhart are heartened by a rebirth of sorts in the industry that some here thought might never bounce back: the RV business.

“Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” says Gregg Fore, president of Dicor Corp. Its companies supply components to RV manufacturers.

Fore says the industry’s downturn was brutal, with business falling off close to 60%. But demand for RVs has come back strong, he says. Last year, the industry produced more than 250,000 RVs. That’s 100,000 more units than the low-water mark in 2009.

“People forget the deep roots of our industry. They don’t remember we’ve been here for as many years as we’ve been here — a hundred years,” says Fore, who is also chairman of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

Dicor’s factories are once again humming — and hiring, he says. And Fore believes the market for motor homes, travel trailers, and campers is here to stay.

“People are still gonna enjoy the lake, their kids, their relatives, the other campers, their beer, their ballgames, their hot dogs,” he says. “That’s the way it’s going to be.”

The RV industry has learned some lessons from the deep recession, Fore says. Companies now offer more lower-cost models, as well as lightweight, fuel efficient and “green” RVs.

But one thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is that the fortunes of Elkhart, and its 51,000 still lives or dies with the fortunes of the RV industry.

Just how reliant is this area on the RV industry? Consider this: Nearly half of all the jobs in Elkhart County are in manufacturing. In fact, no county in the country has a greater share of its jobs in manufacturing. And fully half of Elkhart County’s manufacturing jobs are in making RVs and their parts.

 

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