It may not feel like it for those who are out of work or deep in debt, but Elkhart, Ind., the nation’s RV headquarters, is one of the 79 U.S. metro areas that was economically “in recovery” in August, according to the Adversity Index, a gauge of economic activity produced by Moody’s Economy.com for msnbc.com.
The index, which is based on government data on unemployment, housing and industrial production, had previously rated the city as “in recession” for 32 consecutive months, dating to December 2006., according to msnbc.com
The positive signal for Elkhart lends support to pronouncements by local officials that business activity has been picking up in recent months. But it also comes with warnings that the recovery – if it has in fact begun – will be neither quick nor smooth.
Still, word of the uptick was warmly received by Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, who said it jibes with what she’s been seeing.
“Based on what I’ve seen from both existing companies and prospective new companies, that appears to be the case,” she told msnbc.com.
Heiden-Guss said that RV makers, which have recently been hiring back some laid-off workers, are expected to see sales rebound in the coming year, citing an EDC forecast calling for a 20%. And over the past two months, EDC staff have identified as many as nine local businesses interested in expanding operations. The group also continues to see “extremely heavy interest” from manufacturers of a variety of non-RV-related products who currently do not have operations in the area, she said.
But despite such positives, economist Andrew Gledhill of Moody’s Economy.com warned that Elkhart is by no means out of the recessionary woods.
“Elkhart definitely remains in a quandary, and the economy may never fully recover to what it once was,” he said. “In fact, in our long-term employment forecast, we never have Elkhart reaching its pre-recession peak. … Elkhart is in bad shape and will be for the foreseeable future.”
And Grant Black, an economics professor at Indiana University at South Bend, said that a one-month surge in the Adversity Index doesn’t necessarily mean that the recession is in fact in retreat.
“It’s going to give you a good ballpark of what’s going on,” he said of the measure, “but it may not tell you where you are right at the moment. In other words, it’s not going to be the best instrument for saying we’ve bottomed out and turned the corner.”
Black said recent data show Elkhart County has several areas of continuing concern. Chief among them, he said, is that while the unemployment rate has been steadily declining since spring, so too have employment numbers. The labor force in the county now stands at roughly 94,000, down more than 6,800 since the fourth quarter of 2007, he said.
And 12,000 households in the county were receiving food stamps in July, up 11% from January, he noted.
Figures like that keep County Commissioner Mike Yoder from taking too much satisfaction from the recent surge of business activity and interest that he’s seen. He’s worried that many recently rehired RV workers will soon be laid off again as manufacturers pare back during what are the traditionally slow winter months.
“I’m really concerned that it’s going to be a really rough winter for a pretty good segment of our community,” he said. “We can all celebrate next summer when everyone’s employed again.”