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MSNBC.com Tracks Elkhart’s Economic Rebound

November 20, 2009 by · Comments Off 

The wheels are slowly turning again for the RV industry in Elkhart County, Ind., the mainstay of this region’s economy.

Sales are beginning to pick up again. RV makers are cautiously hiring back some of the workers they furloughed during the downturn, according to a recent sto What To Say When U Make Up Back With Your Ex Girlfriend ry by MSNBC.com as part of its yearlong “Elkhart Project.”

Jayco Inc. in Middlebury, Inc., which was producing about 150 vehicles a day in 2006 with a work force of 2,000, cut production and employment by about half during the downturn. The company recently hired back about 200 workers to keep up with a bump in demand.

“On the one hand it feels really good (to be hiring again),” said Jayco President Derald Bontrager. “But we also recognize that both nationally and globally, economies still have a long way to go to fully recover.”

And that’s the crux of the issue. It’s clear that some regions are seeing some of their industries revive. Our latest Adversity Index shows nearly one in four metro areas beginning to recover, including the Elkhart-Goshen area. But the recovery is faint, uneven, faces many threats and is starting from a point so low that it could take years to get up to cruising speed.

Although RV makers are hiring back workers and shortening planned holiday furloughs, the industry is still operating at its lowest level in some 25 years.

Some 70% of the nation’s recreational vehicles are produced in Elkhart County, but the industry hit a major bump when gas prices surged in 2007. Then production all but ground to a halt as the recession took hold and and credit froze up last year.

But as RV makers tentatively begin to ramp up production again, other businesses in Elkhart also are seeing the economy’s wheels begin to turn again.

Car dealers have seen a pickup in traffic to once-empty showrooms, partly due to the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, which lifted sales nationwide over the summer. Harold Zeigler, who owns 10 dealerships in the region including a Ford/Lincoln Mercury outlet in Elkhart, said the program was so successful that some of his dealerships ran out of inventory.

Another factor boosting car sales: Loans are getting approved more easily than they were at the height of the financial crisis a year ago.

“At the worst of it they were pretty tight, but I don’t see that as being an issue,” Ziegler said. “There seems to be plenty of money for car sales for a good customers with decent credit.”

Similarly the real estate market is also getting a lift from government-provided tax credits for home buyers and cheap credit for borrowers. Congress extended tax credits that were set to expire Nov. 30, and 30-year mortgage rates are at a near-record low of 4.83%, accroding to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

In Elkhart, prices seem to have stabilized, according to Barb Swartley, a real estate agent with Century 21.

“We had a nice little surge in the late spring and in the late summer, and I look for this tax credit to make a difference,” she said. “I think that could spur some people to make a move that may have been on the fence.”

Sales are still far below levels seen before the recession began, as they are nationwide. And the commercial real estate market remains mired in a deep slump, according to John Letherman, a commercial real estate broker and president of the Elkhart County Council.

“We’ve got excess capacity, and along with excess capacity and vacancy come some fairly difficult times for our industry,” he said. “The few buyers that are there are basically bottom feeders. We’ve had some sales at $10 and $12 a square foot of buildings that that should have sold for $20 to $30.”

Though some businesses are slowly adding workers, unemployment remains stubbornly high —still stuck at 15% as of September, the latest data available. Nationally the rate is much lower but still rising — to 10.2% in October, up from 9.8% in September.

“Businesses around here are not hiring unless they feel they’re on a pr

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