Just six weeks after President Obama brought national attention to Elkhart, Ind., the beleaguered “RV Capital of the World” made prime time TV again over the weekend, this time courtesy of Fox TV talk show host Mike Huckabee.
But unlike Obama’s message, which dwelled on how bad things are, Huckabee tried to show the positive side of Elkhart and how the city of 52,000 residents is trying to dig itself out of a deep economic hole.
“But this is also a city that has been through tough times before and it’s been able to reinvent itself and find new ways to prosper,” he said. “How will it respond to this current economic challenge? White House officials say help is on the way and that people need to be patient. But, should they wait on Washington, or will they take charge of their own future and if so, how?
It was the first in a series of “Save Our Town” specials Fox is airing this spring.
Fittingly, the hour-long program was taped outside the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart under clear, sunny skies and in front of an appreciative crowd of some 700 people. The crowd was attentive, applauding on cue and generally supporting Huckabee’s mantra of limited government interference in the economy.
Huckabee, 53, who finished second to John McCain in the GOP presidential primary race last year, hammered home his belief that federal stimulus money will not fix anything without private sector ingenuity.
Huckabee said he was thrilled to bring his show to Elkhart, a place he knew as a youth because “every band instrument I ever saw was made in Elkhart, Ind.” He said he also has a deep appreciation for RVs, after he spent his 2002 gubernatorial campaign (“the best campaign I was ever involved in”) touring in a motorhome. “It was my first real understanding of why the entire RV thing is such an important part of American life. It’s truly a piece of Americana. No other country on earth is quite attuned to understanding this wanderlust that we have as Americans. But it’s also an incredible subculture, if you will, people getting to know each other in spirit and community and a lot of that happens because folks in this town have built those wonderful vehicles that have given Americans connections with each other and connections with their great land.”
He scored points early on with his audience, remarking, “The program today is in large part because we’ve heard so many people around the country coming to say they were ready for the funeral service of Elkhart. Can I tell you a little secret? When we got here, we found a strong pulse and we canceled the memorial service.” His encouraging words drew some of the loudest applause of the day.
The hour-long program featured Huckabee interviewing several local businessmen and government leaders. Pre-selected members of the audience, including several unemployed RV workers, asked questions of the various panels. “We’re not looking for a handout,” one unemployed questioner stated. “We’re looking for a hand up.”
One panel member, Rob Reid, owner of Great Lakes RV, one of just four RV dealers left in business in Elkhart, focused on the importance of banks freeing up credit so that the consumers can resume buying RVs. “Loosen your purse strings,” he told the nation’s bankers, as there are “lots of people with good credit” who want to buy RVs.
His co-panelist, Bill Burton, who oversees the South Bend-based 1st Source Bank operations in Elkhart, noted that his bank is doing its part, as it had 20 retail RV loans in process on Friday, the day before the show. His bank also is active in making loans to RV manufacturers and suppliers, he added, but has stayed out of dealer floorplanning because it is too labor-intensive (and costly) for small banks like his own.
(Reid told RVBusiness afterward that his dealership had sold eight RVs – a mix of fifth-wheels and travel trailers – in the past week and that by his reckoning, the industry has reached its bottom and is on the rebound.)
Another panelist, Doug Lantz, president of new start-up EverGreen RV, explained how his staff of 22 all rebounded from downsizing at other local RV companies to form the new company in the past two months and produce an “eco-friendly RV.” He praised the community’s entrepreneurial spirit and insisted that restoring credit is the key to the RV industry’s recovery. “I hate to keep beating that drum, but it’s the No. 1 issue right now,” said Lantz. “When we try to put dealers together with EverGreen, the one question has to be, what credit lines do you have? We love COD (cash on delivery) dealers!”
Lantz said RV shows have been well attended so far this year in the U.S. and Canada so “we know the demand is there.”
Other panel members included Elkhart Mayor Richard Moore (shown above at right shaking hands with Huckabee), a local electronics manufacturer, a Realtor, a band instrument firm executive and Rick Lavers, CEO of Coachmen Industries Inc., which exited the RV industry late last year.
Huckabee and his guests were upbeat, pointing out the community’s strengths: a strong work ethic; an excellent business climate; a workforce “that can outwork anyone on the planet,” one panelist said; good community infrastructure; clean air; and many industrial sites ready to house new businesses.
The idea to visit Elkhart came from Woody Fraser, the show’s executive producer, after Obama held a town hall meeting in Elkhart last month. As Obama was speaking, Fraser said he thought they should take the show on the road and visit towns facing tough economic challenges.
Elkhart was the obvious place to start, he said, and the show could counteract the negative publicity the city was dealing with. It wouldn’t sugarcoat the situation, but it would show that the city isn’t standing still, either.
Mayor Moore reviewed steps his administration has taken to jump-start the local economy, even going to Washington, D.C., the day after Obama was inaugurated to lobby for the city’s share of the stimulus money. With 19% unemployment, Elkhart should be on top of the list, he argued, and presented “shovel-ready” projects totaling $92 million. He also garnered applause when he observed that the money belongs to the people, not the government.
Huckabee arrived in Indiana on Friday and spent the day touring the community. He walked through the Hall of Fame exhibits (a snippet of which was shown during the show), and when he asked about local fishing (Huckabee is a bass fisherman), Lantz drove him to the edge of the St. Joseph River, which bisects the city.
Huckabee showed a genuine interest in the community over dinner with nine community leaders, including Lantz and Jayco Inc. CEO Wilbur Bontrager, that night at the Elcona Country Club.
“He was cognizant of ‘quality of life’ issues that people often glance over,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, which worked with the Fox staff to put together the show.
She and others said they didn’t discern an ulterior motive by Huckabee laying the groundwork for a 2012 presidential bid.
Nevertheless, Huckabee closed his commentary sharply critical of Obama and Congress. Obama needs a do-over, he said, and should fire Tim Geithner, his “incompetent and tax-evading” treasury secretary. The federal government should also suspend payroll taxes and freeze salaries and staff hirings of Congress and federal agencies, he added.
He made a pitch for the Fair Tax movement, which seeks to replace income tax with a retail tax, and he would eliminate the IRS.
“Elkhart will thrive again, not because of the federal government, but in spite of it,” Huckabee concluded. “Being here makes me want to buy an RV, get in it and see a lot more of America and a lot less of Washington.”
Huckabee, a bass guitarist, closed his show by joining with an impromptu combo dubbed “The Little Elkharts” with their rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl.” They performed a second number not shown on air.
The program was not free of little slip-ups. Huckabee consistently referred to the site as the “RV/MotorHome Hall of Fame” (the MH stands for Manufactured Housing) and an on-screen graphic grossly overstated that “280,000 workers” had been laid off from the RV industry.
But all in all, the show likely gave the community and the RV industry a boost. In the darkest days over the winter, Reid said, he kept telling his staff, “Let’s just get to April.” Well, April is almost here and he is already talking about moving into a larger location, the former Michiana RV lot elsewhere in the city.
Now noticeably buoyant, Reid said the Huckabee show “will be a huge positive impact on Elkhart” and the RV industry.
Boosters invited Huckabee back to the community in June when it hosts the nationally known Elkhart Jazz Festival. By then, they hope, there will be more good news to report about the “City With A Heart.”