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Worst May be Over, But Many Hoosiers Still Worried

August 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

 

Downtown Wakarusa, Ind.

Downtown Wakarusa, Ind.

He keeps coming back to northern Indiana, as if magnetically drawn to some ore of truth there.

For the fourth time in 15 months, President Obama will arrive in this blue-collar manufacturing area –this time the town of Wakarusa — to sample the mood of the heartland and bring a message of change. He returns today (Aug. 5) to a community that has been as hard hit as any in this recession, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Each time he comes here, I keep thinking things must get better,” said Rosalie Collins, 43, an unemployed recreational vehicle worker, as she waited in line at a local unemployment office.

Elkhart encapsulates a key part of the country’s industrial downturn. Unlike the great Midwestern auto towns that are locked with a single industry, the region occupies a slice of industrial America that encompasses a range of manufacturers from musical instruments to high-tech engines.

It is a place that Obama has also found attractive. Elkhart, locals say, is in a traditionally conservative region that has shown a willingness to tilt Democratic. The county backed Sen. John McCain in the last presidential election, but the state went to Obama.

The visit fits a pattern of high-level White House trips to states that are historic presidential battlegrounds. Obama is looking to hold the state in 2012 – and so Indiana is receiving a disproportionate share of his travel time.

Salvation won’t come soon enough for the nearly 16,000 people in a county of less than 200,000 who currently don’t have a job. More than 45% of the businesses in the area are in manufacturing, and one-quarter of those are tied to the RV industry. More than a dozen factories have shut down in the past 12 months.

People here say they have begun to see a slight turn in their world, small improvements and some hiring that hint that the worst may be over. But after so many months of grim news, they are still worried.

“We’ve all been scraping the bottom, and there’s not much left to scrape,” said Loren Begly Sr., 78, a retired truck driver whose six children have all had trouble either finding or keeping full-time work.

Since the late 1800s, when shops building medical products and brass machine fittings crowded along the rail line, the area’s backbone has been its diverse industries.

The region has grown accustomed to economic roller coasters.

It survived after many jobs making musical instruments were moved overseas. It bounced back after gas prices eased and interest in RVs resumed in the 1980s.

It recovered after the Miles Laboratories plant, where Alka-Seltzer and Flintstone vitamins were made, closed its doors in 2001.

“It’s a national icon for economic cyclicality,” said Ken Rosen, chair of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business.

The latest cycle is about the worst it has ever been.

No one here could have imagined such hardship was coming when then-Sen. Barack Obama first stopped here in early May of last year in his campaign for the presidency.

When Obama returned that August, he was leading in the polls, and factories across this northern stretch of Indiana were shedding jobs. People were so eager to hear what Obama had to say, they arrived 12 hours early to wait outside of Concord High School.

When Obama came for a third stop in February, he came as a president trying to put a human face on why the country needed to support his $787 billion stimulus package.

Collins had lost her job by then and was scared. Gas prices had soared. Credit had dried up. Unemployment in the city of Elkhart had skyrocketed to 18 percent.

In the months since, the area has poured its resources into searching for the next manufacturer to bring new jobs.

The area has banked on help from the president’s stimulus plan. The county has attracted its share — $38 million approved so far. Of that, the city of Elkhart has had $14 million approved.

Now, there are hints of recovery. Seven area manufacturing companies, ranging from auto-insulation parts and an office-chair maker to RV manufacturers, have announced plans to expand.

On Tuesday, Dometic Corp. said it would put more than 240 people back to work in Elkhart, when it moves a manufacturing here from a factory in Sweden.

Obama is scheduled to speak today at the shuttered Monaco RV plant in Wakarusa.

He will use the trip to announce grants for advanced battery and electric-vehicle production, according to the White House. He’ll also talk about what’s needed to build conditions for sustained growth.

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