Eight months after unemployment in Elkhart County, Ind., hit 18.9% and helped make this middle America spot a symbol of the economic meltdown, people are starting to go back to work.
In November the unemployment rate in the county fell to 14.5%, the lowest since November 2008, when it was 13%. A big reason for the turnaround is the rebound in the recreational vehicle industry, which is responsible for about a quarter of the county’s annual economy, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As a result, Elkhart RV makers that were laying off workers last year are now hiring. The Keystone RV division of Thor Industries Inc. is one of them, adding about 500 workers in recent months. “It’s a very positive thing for our community,” said Ron Fenech, Keystone president and CEO.
Keystone laid off 1,000 employees as the recession took hold, cutting the staff from 3,100 to 2,100 before the recent reversal. The turmoil in the marketplace last year created a lot of uncertainty, Fenech said, but that began easing earlier this year and the buying trend has continued through the summer and fall. “I think things are positive and heading in the right direction, but we certainly are not all the way back,” he said.
Nationally, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) projects that shipments to dealers from manufacturers will increase 27% in 2010, rising to 203,000 units from 159,500. RV sales nose-dived in 2008 as gasoline prices soared and consumer credit contracted.
At one point Elkhart County had 71 manufacturing facilities that produced about 65% of all recreational vehicles made in the U.S.
For years, employment in Elkhart and the surrounding area was stable, rising from 3.3% in 1997 to 4.6% by the end of 2007. In 2008 high gas prices and the downturn accelerated that, and unemployment in the county tripled to 16% in one year. The two hardest-hit industries were construction and manufacturing.
Earlier this year, when unemployment was at its peak, many restaurant and shopping center parking lots were virtually empty.
President Obama visited in February, pointing to the problems in the area to support his argument that Congress should pass a stimulus bill.
Things have improved significantly since then. Jayco Inc., another Elkhart RV company, has hired 250 employees in recent months, bringing staffing levels to 1,450 people. During the downturn it let go 900 employees and cut its daily production from 30 units to 15 on some assembly lines. Those assembly lines are now producing about 23 units per day, said Sid Johnson, the company’s director of marketing.
The company now has back orders, Johnson said, adding there was “a certain amount of optimism, albeit pretty cautious, as to what we think next year will be like.”
Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Elkhart County Economic Development Corp., said a positive aspect of the notoriety from Obama’s visit was business interest. She said she was hoping to get 25 companies to tour the county this year and consider locating there. Through early December 59 had come, looking at buildings, meeting with local officials and, in some cases, exploring financing.
The county has more than $134 million in new projects going on from outside companies that are investing in property, equipment, buildings and other improvements. That equates to about 3,300 new jobs, Heiden-Guss said.
Electric Motors Co. hired Ed Neufeldt, a laid-off RV plant worker who introduced Obama during a presidential visit. Now the 62-year-old father of seven is helping the company, which partnered with Gulf Stream Coach, to build a prototype truck modeled on the Ford F-150 pickup truck but with an electric engine.
Neufeldt made cabinets for Monaco Coach Corp. for 32 years before he was laid off in September 2008, along with 1,400 other workers. He was volunteering with several out-of-work RV plant employees at a local shelter when he was asked to introduce Obama during one of his visits to the community. He got a part-time job delivering bread afterward and is now working both jobs. “I’m still not making what I made on unemployment, but I am blessed,” he said.
Phil Penn, president of the Greater Elkhart County Chamber of Commerce, said stimulus money — through October Indiana received $848 million, according to the federal government — has to be credited with helping keep some people in the area employed and accelerating work on some local infrastructure projects.
“But that’s not what our economy is built on. We certainly welcomed the stimulus dollars to our community, but as far as direct job creation, quite frankly, that will come from the private sector.”
Gulf Stream Coach’s EnduraMAX toy haulers is debuting its re-designed lineup of Crossover toy haulers with an all new look at the 47th Annual National RV Trade Show this week in Louisville, Ky. The Track & Trail (shown at left) has been completely re-designed with all new floorplans that are all half-ton towable geared for the entry-level buyers’ market, said A.J. Jones, national sales manager. “We have cut the prices while featuring many new amenities never seen before.” The unit will feature two-tone painted exteriors and two-tone wood cabinetry. The Track & Trail will also feature a 24-foot model with a walk around front bed and 12 feet of garage space with MSRP starting at $15,113. The company also is releasing its new lightweight EnduraMAX Sport. This product will be built using ENDURA LITE composite laminated construction that helped to eliminate a lot of unnecessary weight. The Sport will feature the first 7½-foot tall full wall slideout that gives the look of a double slide at a single slide cost. It will also feature the patent pending removable vapor wall with a 12-foot temperature controlled garage space that doubles as living space or a bunk house, solid hardwood cabinetry, walk around front beds, side isle bathrooms, huge entertainment systems, huge sound systems and the first-ever drop down front bedroom. MSRP starting at $24,367. The company also will display a new EnduraMAX luxury fifth-wheel with ENDURA LITE composite laminated construction. The product will have the industry’s first upper deck kitchen floorplan in a toy hauler. It will have a 20-foot full wall slideout that is 7½ feet tall.
Gulf Stream Coach motorized division is introducing the all new Conquest Class C Sport series from the brand that has been a mainstay in the Class C market for over 20 years. “Conquest Class C is known for industry firsts such as wide body construction, basement design and the first to have a slide-out,” said Claude Donati, vice president motorized division. The Conquest Sport will be available on a Ford chassis with V-10 engine and come in four floor plans: 23-foot, 28-foot, and two 31-foot units with slides; one with bunk beds. Standard features include 7-foot ceiling, Cradle of Strength construction, hardwood stiles and cabinets, microwave, awning, galvanized steel storage compartment, generator and a large overhead bunk. “With the development of the Conquest Sport series, we will give customers the best priced Class C in the market. There is a time to innovate, and there is a time to make things simple. In 2010, we believe price is king,” said Donati. MSRP $64,632.
Gulf Stream Coach will unveil the all new Visa lightweight travel trailer at the 47th Annual National RV trade Show Dec. 1-3 in Louisville, Ky. The 23-foot model has a dry weight of 2,586 pounds. Gulf Stream’s goal was to provide amenities like walk-around queen beds and full baths for the 3,500-pound tow vehicle, according to a news release. Visa also utilizes state-of-the-art composites inside and outside. Its unique profile decreases wind drag, while providing good interior head room.
Gulf Stream Coach reported this week that retail sales for its travel trailer and fifth-wheel combined brands in September ranked No. 1 in the latest report from Statistical Surveys Inc.
“The entry level and lightweight products have done particular well this year,” according to Phil Sarvari, executive vice president. Gulf Stream moved up from No. 6 in September 2008. Gulf Stream’s combined brand beat out the next best selling brand by 34 units in that month, according to a press release.
“There has been a year of many achievements at Gulf Stream and we are very excited about the new ‘value packed’ and innovative products we are introducing at Louisville this year,” added Sarvari. “We want to thank all of our dealers over this past year and the 32 new dealers that have joined our team recently.”
Meanwhile, Gulf Stream is reintroducing its Sun Voyager Class A motorhome at a lower price point than ever offered before, according to a news release.
“We believe this coach will actually kick start the 2010 selling season by giving dealers an extremely affordable and bankable product,” said Brian Shea, president Gulf Stream Motorized Division. “With unique product design and high-end features at an affordable retail price, the Sun Voyager is sure to create the sales opportunities all dealers need right now.”
The 2010 Sun Voyager will be available in three models: 30-foot with three slides and an atrium room, 34-foot with bunk beds and 32-foot double slide. The starting price point is $93,219 MSRP with many upgraded features considered standard. The Sun Voyager will have 7-foot interior ceilings; hardwood cabinets, doors and stiles; basement storage; and bus-style storage doors.
The chassis on this feature-rich motorhome is a 20,500-pound GVWR Ford F-53 with a V10 engine. “The market is looking at price and features. The Sun Voyager has been designed to turn quickly for the dealers and create a lot of gross margin,” said Claude Donati, vice president, Gulf Stream Coach. “Customers are looking for those products that can easily be financed and will not break the bank. The Sun Voyager is that product in 2010.”
Gulf Stream Coach will showcase the all-new Sun Voyager during the 47th Annual National RV Trade Show Dec. 1-3 in Louisville, Ky.
As Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels joined executives from Electric Motors Corp. and Gulf Stream Coach Inc. at the podium today (May 14) to announce what amounts to sensational news for beleaguered Elkhart County - the possible creation of thousands of new jobs from a new hybrid electric engine initiative – some in the crowd wondered what all this means for the future of the RV industry.
Is Gulf Stream, in an understandable need to diversify, preparing to exit the RV sector altogether? Is the sun setting on the recreational vehicle business just as it appears that a rebound for RV manufacturers and suppliers is on the horizon?
The answer, in a word, is “no,” according to those in attendance at this morning’s press conference in a vacant Wakarusa, Ind., RV dealership – just down the street from an expansive closed Monaco Coach Corp. plant that some suspect may be about to reopen under Monaco’s new Navistar owners.
Indeed, those involved see nothing but good news for everyone involved with the new initiative, including several partner companies currently seeking funding through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which should appreciably expedite job creation in Elkhart County.
However, they caution, the direct industry impact — other than diversification and insulation from the next economic downturn — won’t be as immediate as the jobs it might create. Officials expect to add as many as 1,100 to 1,500 jobs throughout the area’s whole supply chain by 2011-12. Long haul estimates range from 3,900 to 6,000 new hires.
“With all of the affiliated industry in the supply chain, we see that by 2012, if everything goes according to plan, (the addition of) up to 6,000 jobs (in the area),” says Mark Smith, vice president and chief information officer for Gulf Stream and project manager for the electric hybridization vehicle project for the Nappanee-based manufacturer.
Smith and others see the move toward electrification as a boon to the RV business in general over the next few years.
“Electrification in the recreational vehicle business would make a big difference because you’re increasing fuel efficiency and there will be emissions legislation coming down over the next decade that will encumber the industry if they don’t make changes,” says EMC President Brad Rinehart. “And this entire effort will definitely help out the industry in existing business and create new markets of opportunity within the RV business.”
And as technology develops, Rinehart explained, heavier-duty vehicles will be involved beyond the light-duty trucks into which Gulf Stream plans to begin installing parallel hybrid electric engines by 2010. “The first program we have is a light duty truck,” he noted. “Our plans are to produce about 40,000 vehicles over the next 48 months here in Elkhart County in partnership with Gulf Stream. We have several other projects that I’m not at liberty to talk about with other partners at this point, but our plans are to become a facilitator, an integrator of electrification products into the RV industry and into the light, medium-duty and heavy truck business.”
Of course, 40,000 vehicles is a stunning number for an area that has seen so much idle manufacturing capacity of late. “But,” adds, Rinehart, (EMC CEO) “Wil Cashen is a pretty stunning guy. He’s been able to bring together a collective group of people, some world class engineering companies and the resources needed to make something like this a reality.”
So don’t look to today’s announcement as a signal that Gulf Stream is looking to get out of the RV business by serving as a lead partner in what amounts to an unprecedented partnership in these parts. On the contrary, Gulf Stream is looking to get farther into the towable and motorized RV arena, according to Smith and Gulf Stream Motorized Division President Brian Shea.
“Absolutely,” said Smith. “Our vision, actually, is to bring back the RV industry in a way that may have taken many more years of this economic recovery.”
“What it means is job growth here again,” added Shea. “We’re (Gulf Stream) getting into a new technology, which we’re excited about. You know, we’ve always felt like we’ve been on the cutting edge in recreational vehicles. Now, this puts us on the cutting edge in technology as applied to vehicles.”
An Indiana RV-maker, teaming up with a California-based company, plans to make Elkhart County a hub for electric vehicle production, with the potential for more than 1,600 jobs by 2012.
Gov. Mitch Daniels and executives from Electric Motors Corp. and Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream Coach made the announcement about a partnership today (May 14) to manufacturer what it says is the first light-duty electric pickup truck, according to the Lafayette Journal and Courier.
Together, the companies plan to invest more than $80 million on building renovations, machinery and equipment to site manufacturing facilities in Wakarusa and Nappanee.
It’s welcome news in Indiana’s Elkhart-Goshen region – hard hit by unemployment due to fallout in the recreational vehicle industry, with a March rate of 18.8%, a 13 percentage-point increase over the past year. That was the fourth-highest jobless rate in the country.
“You can’t keep a great work force and a great business environment down for long,” Daniels said in a statement provided by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. “Every trip starts with a single step, but this is a huge step on the way back to the prosperity we’ve always associated with Elkhart County.”
The partner companies are seeking funding through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which could expedite the job creation in Elkhart County, a news release says.
The Department of Energy’s program provides loans to automobile and parts manufacturers for the cost of re-equipping, expanding or establishing U.S. manufacturing facilities to produce advanced technology vehicles or qualified components.
EMC plans to purchase an existing building in Wakarusa and hire 450 workers to produce and assemble electric motors.
Gulf Stream Coach could increase its work force by up to 1,200 jobs, which would include recall of some displaced workers. The company will utilize one of its existing dormant plants in Nappanee for assembly operations.
A recent RV show in Edmonton, Alberta, gave consumers a glimpse of the future in RVs.
The Shasta trailer is built by Coachmen Recreational Vehicle Co. Constructed with today’s technology, the Shasta captures the look of the original with a lightning bolt stripe on the side and wings on the rear of the trailer, according to the Edmonton Journal.
Ted Trowsse said he signed up to sell Shasta trailers on the condition he could have the first one built to bring to the recent RV show. That meant he was displaying the trailer before dealers in the United States had an opportunity. The Shasta was one of several retro-look trailers at the show.
Trowsse said he hoped to sell 10 out of the show. Much of the interest came from owners of collector cars, some of whom are restoring original Shastas, who could see a Shasta behind their old vehicle. The trailer’s light weight (2,400 pounds) for the 12-foot model and 3,100 pounds for the 16-foot is an attractive feature for tow vehicles old and new.
There’s a market for people with smaller vehicles such as minivans or compact sport utilities, Trowsse said. However, old car guys are the biggest part of it. He intends to show off the Shasta at collector car shows this summer.
Other retro-look trailers at the show were the R-Pod and the T@b. The T@b lineup started with a teardrop trailer, but has grown to include the T@da — which is longer with rounded ends and a flat roof. The T@da has a regular price of $24,900.
From Class A motorhomes with a veranda to Class C’s on steroids to a bumper-pull toy hauler with an airbrushed purple and black paint scheme, there were RVs for nearly every taste and pocketbook at the Edmonton show.
The best prices tended to be on units that dealers had bought before the loonie dropped to its current level of 80 cents against the U.S. dollar. The slumping Canadian dollar has seen increases of thousands of dollars on recently ordered RVs.
Walter Dubecki, sales manager at Western RV Country in Leduc, Alberta, said buyers can save thousands of dollars by purchasing a unit out of a dealer’s stock rather than ordering a unit.
Two travel trailers built by Coachmen stood out as good values — the Aristocrat sold by Carefree RV for $15,995 and the Dutchmen Sport priced at $16,365 by Northern Lights RV. Show visitors lined up to check out the R-Pod, manufactured by Forest River Inc., during the show’s opening night. Hill said his staff sold one R-Pod on opening night.
Hill first saw the R-Pod during a show in Indiana for Forest River dealers in late October. Production is ramping up on the trailers, but all floor plans are not yet available. Those additional floor plans will become available in the coming months.
The R-Pod designer aimed to build a light, strong trailer that could be pulled by vehicles with 3,500-pound towing capacity such as minivans, crossovers and SUVs.
“We’ve had a lot of people in their mid-20s who normally would not look at travel trailers who see it and say, ‘I’d own one of those,’” Hill said.
For decades, Class C motorhomes were built on cutaway van chassis. The van front and chassis was combined with a motorhome body that included a portion that overhangs the cab. However, in recent years a new style of Class C has appeared that uses a conventional truck chassis. Several examples were on display at the show, including models built on Chevrolet Kodiak, International and Freightliner chassis. Factory and dealer representatives refer to these units as “Class C’s on steroids.”
For some buyers, an attractive feature with these motorhomes is the towing capacity that can exceed 15,000 pounds. Race car owners, for example, could tow their competition vehicle behind the motorhome.
But Larry Luther, Class C regional sales manager for Gulf Stream Coach, explained that there’s another way SuperNova motorhomes, built on an International truck chassis, could make it to the races. The roof is strong enough that it can be used as an observation deck for watching, for example, a NASCAR race or a fireworks display.
The SuperNova, with tow capacities up to 15,000 lb., has “sold great for us,” Luther said, explaining sales have totalled about 600 units a year in its first two years on the market.
The Canadian price starts at $210,000 for the SuperNova, which is equipped with a 6.0-litre V8 diesel engine — the same engine International supplied to Ford as the Powerstroke diesel — an Allison automatic transmission, twin 70 U.S. gallon fuel tanks and a built-in Onan diesel generator.
The Jayco Embark comes equipped with a 20,000-lb. hitch. It is equipped with a 330 Cummins engine and Allison automatic.
Al Schafer, an RV City sales consultant, said the Embark, which has just begun rolling off the production line, is new for 2009.
The Embark is equipped with an 8,000-watt diesel generator and a 1,800-watt inverter so that occupants will always have power even if hookups aren’t available.
RV City offered the Embark and a new Honda CR-V sport utility at the show special price of $281,783.
Schafer said the Embark will be available with a radar system that will scan the road ahead for obstacles. This could be handy when weather or light conditions limit the driver’s ability to see.
The Bigfoot Class C, built on a Chev Kodiak chassis at the company’s factory in Armstrong, B.C., uses lightweight construction. This motorhome, also equipped with an Allison automatic, offers the Duramax diesel engine as an option, giving it the pulling power to tow, for example, a horse trailer. List price equipped with the Duramax is $220,700.
The Coachmen Leprechaun is a Class C with a more conventional appearance since it’s built on a Ford van chassis, but it has interior finishing that Western RV’s Dubecki says moves it into the class of a yacht or a penthouse. The interior features fine cabinetry and other features that set it apart.
For example, instead of the standard dinette booth, the Leprechaun has a couch and table.
Dubecki said the Leprechaun would be a good choice for a couple who might want to use it to tour Canada or the U.S. The Leprechaun, equipped with 6.8-litre V10 gasoline engine, is priced at $89,900.
Dubecki said most people would never own a motorhome long enough or drive far enough to make up the thousands of dollars in additional cost of a diesel engine.
The MXT toy hauler, built by KZ RV LP, caught the eye of visitors to the Trailblazer RV display. The optional airbrushed purple and black paint scheme made the MXT a trailer to remember. Trailblazer sales manager Bill Burnett said the lightweight trailer was being called “the purple people pleaser.”
Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind., has introduced an XL option for its 2010 Wide Open and G-Force fifth-wheel toy hauler series, creating a vapor wall that can be opened to extend the living area into the heated garage. “Most toy hauler consumers want a sealed garage to eliminate the transfer of fumes, but many can’t justify losing 12 feet of living space for the garage area,” said A.J. Jones, Gulf Stream’s national sales manager for its EnduraMax division. “This patent-pending XL option is the first way to really overcome that objection.” The XL’s sealed rear wall, which contains an entertainment center that includes a flat-screen TV on a swivel bracket, opens toward the garage to create more living space after toys have been removed. The heated garage area also contains two queen bunk beds. The $693 XL option is available in five floorplans each in the vacuum bonded fiberglass-and-aluminum Wide Open and G-Force series.