There is another strong sign of an economic rebound in Elkhart County in Northern Indiana, hub of the RV industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks Elkhart County tops in the nation for job growth in 2012.
The bureau says employment in the area increased 7.4% from December 2011 to December 2012, compared to a national rate of 1.9%.
Within the boundaries of Elkhart County, manufacturing was the fastest driver of job growth, with manufacturing employment in Elkhart County gaining 5,479 jobs during 2012, an 11.6% growth rate in this segment vital to north-central Indiana.
Approximately 83% of the nation’s RVs built in 2012 came from Indiana, with the bulk of that total from Elkhart and adjacent LaGrange counties.
Indiana’s Elkhart County led the nation in job growth between September 2011 and September 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Thursday (March 28).
“Elkhart, Ind., had the largest percentage increase in employment (6.9%) among the largest U.S. counties,” according to Thursday’s announcement. The national growth rate was 1.6%.
The Elkhart Truth reported that manufacturing led the way in Elkhart County, gaining 4,734 jobs over that time, a growth of 10.1%, according to the BLS quarterly census of employment and wages. “In Elkhart County, what else but manufacturing,” said Dave Daugherty, president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce.
Manufacturing has an oversize importance to the economy, and roughly half of Elkhart County manufacturing is related to the recreational vehicle industry. That industry has seen strong growth over the last couple of years.
According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), RV shipments grew 13.6% in 2012, and they are off to a strong start for this year, with January up 30% over the previous January, and February up 6% over the previous February.
That led to new positions at RV makers — the RVIA estimates 83% of all North American RVs are made in and around Elkhart County — and at RV suppliers.
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With designs on reviving a work force still staggered by the economic downturn, an Oregon developer is actively marketing the former manufacturing campus and headquarters for Monaco Coach Corp. that encompasses nine stand-alone facilities situated on 69 acres in Coburg.
Steve Lee and his wife, Sally, finalized the purchase in late June from a division of Navistar International Corp., which acquired Monaco after an industrywide plummet in sales that forced the venerable manufacturer into foreclosure three years ago and left around 2,000 people unemployed. While acknowledging the property’s potential to be parceled out to different buyers – each building is self-sufficient – Lee’s long-time ties to Monaco and the industry have him hoping that “Coburg North Industrial Park” will once again house an RV manufacturer looking to establish a West Coast presence.
“Sally and I developed the Coburg site and also Monaco’s Holiday Rambler facilities in Wakarusa, Ind.,” Lee said. “The quality of construction was far above what you see in the RV industry. Both sites are the Cadillac of industrial complexes with not only top quality construction materials but also an emphasis on energy efficiency and overall aesthetics.”
But, according to Lee, one of the most attractive selling points is the area’s veteran work force.
“We have people that are primed and ready to go to work with no training required,” said Lee. “And unlike Elkhart County, you don’t have the competition for skilled laborers from all the other RV companies. Sally and I truly have a passion for bringing work back to the area.”
He added, “My son, Ryan, who was director of marketing for Monaco, has given a lot of tours to potential buyers. I asked him what it was like to see all those empty buildings. He told me that wasn’t the problem, it was not seeing the faces of all the people that are missing.”
The centerpiece for the property is a 336,849-square-foot production facility, which over the years produced towables and gas motorhomes, and later Monaco’s high-end diesel coaches. Ryan Lee says it’s “absolutely ideal for an RV manufacturer,” adding, “It’s basically in move-in shape. A company could be up and running in 72 hours.”
The plant boasts 8,600 square feet of office area and 340,988 square feet of production space along with an expansive covered storage area, covered loading dock and multiple loading docks and cranes. “It’s first class,” said Ryan Lee. “There are even copper air lines, which are great for tools.”
Lee noted that Navistar is still leasing a facility for its customer service department, but said the company recently moved all towable production to Harrisburg, Ore.
Other features of the property include:
• Nearly 1 million square feet under roof.
• Buildings constructed by Butler Manufacturing.
• Mature landscaping around buildings.
• 200 electric roll-up doors.
• Facilities include a former Monaco medical building and wellness center, and a 12,000-square-foot office building.
• Several manufacturing buildings previously used for chassis production, paint and final finish and component production.
• Close proximity to shipping docks in Portland and also Interstate 5, the main north-west connector on West Coast.
• Wood products all produced in Oregon.
Steve Lee said that he had already shown the property to several commercial developers and was currently conducting two or three major tours a week. “We will probably start off leasing the buildings,” he said. “But if someone wanted to buy it outright we could work them. The local and state governments are also motivated to put people back to work so there should be some incentives available.”
For additional information on Coburg North, visit www.coburgnorth.com or contact Jeff Elder with Evans, Elder & Brown at Jeff@eebcre.com or (541) 345-4860.
A nationally televised documentary Tuesday (Feb. 28) featured a segment on what was described as the greatest cultural change in Amish life since their arrival in America — using footage filmed in Indiana’s LaGrange County.
“The Amish” aired nationally Tuesday as part of PBS’ documentary series “American Experience.” It featured segments on a variety of topics relating to Amish life and interaction with the outside world filmed in multiple communities.
A segment describing the movement of Amish men into factory, rather than farm, work, used footage and an off-camera interview with an unidentified Amish worker filmed at a recreational vehicle plant in Topeka. The documentary said more than half of Amish men in northern Indiana now work in factories.
The worker described the stresses of working in an environment other than the ones in which he had been raised, and the pace the work required.
Sociologist Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College, interviewed for the program, said the shift to factory worked marked the greatest cultural change for the Amish since they arrived in the United States in the 17th century.
Indiana’s Elkhart County is holding out hope that Think, the electric car company that set up shop there, can be resurrected by its Russian owner.
“We want them to be successful,” said Barkley Garrett, Elkhart’s economic development director, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We’d like to see them meet all their numbers. Certainly sooner rather than later we’d like to see them up and operating, producing the vehicles they thought they would be.”
But if the car company doesn’t restart, Garrett isn’t concerned. “If they were to go away today, it wouldn’t cost the city much.”
So far, Elkhart is out only $1,500 in tax benefits given to the company.
Others believe this city of 50,000 will find a way to reinvent itself another way, as it has done throughout its history.
A few short years ago Elkhart County could have been named RV County. But as gasoline prices rose, it didn’t take long for the impact to hit Elkhart. Monaco RV, which at one point had $1.2 billion in sales making high-end RVs, was among the consolidations and closures that hit the area when it sold itself to Navistar and then shuttered local operations.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Elkhart’s RV industry thought it was making a comeback because of the renewed need for portable and temporary housing. The bulk of RV orders, however, proved an illusion, masking the fact that real demand for RVs had declined precipitously, said Gregg Fore, president of Dicor Corp., an RV industry supplier based in Elkhart.
When the county’s unemployment topped 20% in 2009, up from 4% when the RV industry was at its peak, building electric cars looked like a viable future.
“One of our strengths is we reinvent ourselves,” said Philip Penn, who heads the local chamber of commerce.
For example, the city used to be the world’s largest band instrument manufacturer. The industry employed thousands from the late 1800s until the 1960s. One manufacturer, C.G. Conn, once employed 2,000 people.
“When the whistle blew for quitting time, you didn’t want to be in the way because, man, they’d come running out of there like ants,” Penn said.
According to the Chicago Tribune, when the bulk of instrument manufacturing moved overseas, Miles Laboratories, which was founded in Elkhart and best known for Alka-Seltzer, became the city’s largest employer. At one point, more than 4,000 people worked at the pharmaceutical-maker’s 1 million-square-foot campus.
But in the late 1970s, Bayer AG of West Germany, the world’s fourth-largest chemical producer, acquired Miles. By the 1980s, the Bayer campus essentially had been abandoned.
The city sold the property, turning over the campus to the Feed The Children charity for $1. The nonprofit today occupies a fraction of the campus, and the city plans to tear down many of the buildings.
Think isn’t the only green-tech company that has promised jobs that never surfaced. Two years ago, Indiana’s governor said Elkhart County would be the home of hybrid and plug-in trucks with old RV manufacturers partnering with young clean-tech companies.
Those deals never took place.
“How many are here today? None. How many received government money? All of them. Oops,” Fore said.
The county also has dabbled in alternative energy. “We’ve had our experiences with solar, wind and electric and, to date, we’ve not see those pay the dividends Washington promised,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the county’s Economic Development Corp.
If another reinvention is in the works, Heiden-Guss says the county will have to raise the money because three visits from President Barack Obama haven’t brought much change to the unemployment rate.
Her department’s budget is scraped together from local town budgets and has just four employees, she said. “Our organization doesn’t have a dime more.”
Three Indiana cities are among the tops in the nation for growth in the value of goods and services they produce, according to an Associated Press report.
The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the Elkhart-Goshen area saw a 13% increase in its Gross Domestic Product from 2009 to 2010. Columbus’ Gross Domestic Product rose 10.1% over the same period.
Only Elizabethtown, Ky., and San Jose, Calif., fared better.
Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Jack Hess said that educational efforts, increased productivity and global growth led largely by engine maker Cummins Inc. helped boost the city.
Elkhart-Goshen’s growth reflected the area’s rebound since the recession that decimated manufacturers including recreational vehicle makers.
The Kokomo MSA ranked 17th nationally for GDP growth in a sign of the auto industry’s rebound.
Navistar International Inc.’s decision to move 450 jobs to Indiana from its Monaco RV motor coach plant in Coburg, Ore., will reduce employment in Lane County’s transportation equipment manufacturing sector by half.
As reported by the Register Guard, Eugene, that’s terrible news for a local economy that has grown numb from similar blows. Even before Navistar’s announcement Tuesday (Aug. 2), employment in the sector, mostly recreational vehicle manufacturing, had fallen 80% from its peak in 2005. Such a steep decline makes the notoriously volatile wood products industry look like an island of stability in Lane County’s manufacturing economy.
Lane County’s RV makers employed 4,600 workers in 2005, according to the Oregon Employment Department, having added more than 1,000 jobs in just two years. Eugene and Springfield had become bedroom communities for Coburg and Junction City, the industry’s leading production points.
Jobs in the RV plants paid an average of 22% less than those in sawmills and plywood mills, but the RV makers were on the verge of surpassing the mills as Lane County’s leading source of manufacturing employment. Monaco Coach Corp., Country Coach Inc. and Marathon Coach Inc. — the big three RV companies — filled local suppliers’ order books, and their workers’ paychecks helped sustain grocers, dentists, movie theaters and car dealers.
Then the bottom fell out. A credit crunch, a deep economic downturn and high gas prices all came at once.
The Register Guard reported that employment hit bottom in March 2009, when just 500 people were employed in the transportation equipment manufacturing sector. A gradual recovery had took hold since then, with employment in the sector averaging 900 in the first six months of this year. But the news about Monaco promises to bring local RV industry employment to a new low. A return to the boom days before the Great Recession is a distant dream.
Navistar’s shift in production to Indiana results from a new factor in the local equation. Monaco, like Lane County’s other big RV makers, is locally grown, but its assets were purchased by Navistar after bankruptcy proceedings in 2009. Monaco’s jobs in Coburg became subject to decisions made by a multinational company based in Illinois. While 150 jobs will remain in Coburg, consolidating most of Monaco’s work force in Indiana makes sense to executives who see Lane County as an outpost distant from supply lines and markets.
Total manufacturing employment in Lane County peaked at the same time as the number of jobs in RV-making hit its highest point. Since then, manufacturing has declined by 40%, to 12,200 in June from 20,600 in the summer of 2005.
The RV industry accounts for about half of that decline. And the drop in manufacturing employment accounts for half the decline in total non-farm employment in Lane County, which stood at 143,500 in June after reaching a peak of 159,500 in late 2007.
Other sectors have suffered as well, but one contrast is telling. The wood products industry in Lane County has been shrinking for a decade, slipping to 3,400 jobs in June from 5,300 in 2001. Yet wood products remains the largest local source of manufacturing employment, and it is likely to remain so — particularly if a recovery in the construction industry ever arrives.
Wood products is known to be a boom-and-bust industry, highly sensitive to changes in the housing market. But it won’t be moving to Indiana, and it continues to provide jobs that form the base of Lane County’s economic pyramid. The RV industry, once poised to overtake wood products as the county’s leading manufacturing employer, is mostly gone.
The wood products industry is still here, and can be expected to remain.