Midwest news media looking at recent developments in the RV industry in Indiana are again finding something positive to talk about.
Following announcements that Fleetwood RV Inc. has begun to rehire workers for its motorized RV plant in Decatur, Ind., and that Dometic Corp. is planning to move production of RV refridgerators from Sweden to Elkhart, creating 241 new jobs there, the print and broadcast media jumped on the good news.
The Indianapolis Star stated that “Plans by two RV companies to hire additional workers could breathe life back into the slumping Northern Indiana RV industry, hammered by low sales and thousands of layoffs.”
The Star quoted Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), stating, “What we’re hoping is that this is a sign of a turnaround.”
Indiana factories make about 70% of the RVs made in the U.S. More than half are made in Elkhart County.
Statewide, about 60,000 Hoosiers worked in the RV industry at its peak in 2006, when the industry generated more than $65 million in state tax payments.
The announcements were good news for workers in Elkhart County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and Decatur, about 20 miles south of Fort Wayne.
“I think our area has been hungry for jobs for a while,” said Kyle Hannon, vice president of public policy for the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.
Dometic will receive a tax break as an incentive from Elkhart and the state of Indiana to invest in the area.
“I’m very optimistic about (Dometic’s) future and about the future of our area,” said Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore.
According to the RVIA, 25,000 jobs have been lost in the RV industry nationwide since its decline over the last pew years. But Broom says he has seen an uptick in hiring in the past few months
Fleetwood RV Inc. has already received 1,500 applications since posting the 650 openings last week. The company expects to fill the positions starting next week.
“This work force historically has been one of Fleetwood’s best work forces,” said Fleetwood’s John Draheim. “The support from the community has been very overwhelming.”
South Bend-based Fox 28 News said the Dometic announcement “brings with it hope that Michiana’s RV industry, once left for dead, has some life in it yet.”
The station quoted Hannon from the Elkhart chamber, saying, “You start to hear different things from the industry like we are busy. But this is the first time it’s more of an announcement that a supplier says yes, we are hiring.”
He said the fact that Elkhart has hundreds of qualified workers just waiting for a job is very attractive to companies in the industry.
“That’s the silver lining of the unfortunate cloud of layoffs. We do have a lot of skilled workers that are ready to go,” said Hannon.
While some are confident the industry is making a comeback, others aren’t so sure.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not just bringing companies into Elkhart, you’ve got to have credit loosened up,” said Chris Huffer, who works in the RV industry. Huffer owns Midwest RV Connection and knows what it takes to run a business. He says nothing will happen until banks start lending again and the cost of gas keeps going down. However, he is hopeful.
“Do I think it will be back to where it was? Well, it’s a start, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Huffer.
The Fort Wayne News Sentinel, noting that the rebirth of Fleetwood in Decatur, quoted community leaders in Decatur who suggested even more jobs could be resurrected.
Larry Macklin, executive director of the Adams County Economic Development Corp., said he couldn’t say how many jobs would be filled eventually as a result of the purchase of Fleetwood.
“Those numbers you’re seeing don’t include Gold Shield, and Gold Shield was part of the spinoff, too,” Macklin said.
Gold Shield Fiberglass makes components for a wide range of companies, including heavy-truck makers, medical-device manufacturers and bus builders. But a mainstay for Gold Shield is molded RV parts.
Macklin said bringing more workers back to Fleetwood would help smaller suppliers in Adams County, too, such as cabinet-makers that outfit RV interiors and a wiring-harness manufacturer.
Macklin said the recession may actually help Fleetwood in the long run, because weaker RV builders may be thinned out of the market entirely.
“Fleetwood survived because it’s the best. It’s the Cadillac of RVs,” he said.
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Indiana Economic Development Corp. helped persuade American Industrial Partners (AIP) to consolidate Fleetwood operations in Decatur, making Decatur the headquarters of the new company. He expects the state to announce more details of its incentives for AIP soon.
Decatur Mayor John Shultz said the Decatur City Council was scheduled to consider abatements Tuesday night to aid the reshaped Fleetwood, too. The abatements would be applied only to equipment valued at $14 million-$15 million, which is likely to be moved here as production is consolidated.
The Fleetwood plant drew most of its employees from a 35-mile radius in northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, Macklin said. He said that despite the excitement of the return of Fleetwood jobs, people need to be patient.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a few weeks,” he said.