Good news travels fast in this small community in western Elkhart County.
The morning after Navistar International Inc. announced it would move 400 manufacturing jobs from Oregon to Wakarusa, the town was buzzing with optimism.
As retiree Don Foster walked his Chihuahua down Elkhart Street near the post office Wednesday morning he was excited about the good news.
“I think it is good for the community,” he said. “It is going to put a lot of people back to work. That’s what we need.”
Foster and other town residents are well aware of the long-term economic woes that hit the town when Monaco Coach closed and terminated more than 1,000 people at its Wakarusa plant. Now, this new iteration of Monaco will be adding to the 250 employees producing Class A and Class C motorhomes at the massive complex that dominates the industrial park along Nelson Parkway.
Foster said he has friends who have worked in the recreational vehicle industry.
“Some of them,” he said, “have had a hard time finding work.”
‘That kind of excitement’
Down the street at the Chamber of Commerce, President Deb Shively had already met with her board of directors.
“It’s great news,” she said. “We are excited about that growth. And Utilimaster will be up to 1,000 employees by Labor Day and we feel Wakarusa is going to get back to where it used to be. There is that kind of excitement.”
Utilimaster converts box trucks for parcel delivery companies and a variety of other applications. The company has a joint venture with Isuzu Motors of Japan to build a line of new, light-weight vans and is adding jobs to fill orders.
Wakarusa developed in the 20th century as a hub of manufacturing activity. The small town — with its wide, tree-lined streets and early 20th century homes with large front porches — is bordered by industrial plants to its east. The industrial complexes reach out to Ind. 19 and line that highway to the north and south of C.R. 40.
Besides building RVs, Navistar builds its eStar electric truck in town. Visitors gawk at the site of the quiet electric trucks being test-driven around the town, something the locals have become used to.
“It’s like you are in the space age,” Shively said. “It is two extremes — it’s where small town USA and high-tech meet. It is very cool.”
Monaco and Navistar not only provide jobs to the town’s residents, Shively said, but the companies provide vital financial support for town activities. The companies returned as sponsors of the annual Maple Syrup Festival last year, Shively said.
“It was nice to see that support come back,” she said.
But it is the paychecks and the turn of those dollars from Monaco workers that will boost the local economy the most.
“Hopefully we will get people moving in and they will plug into the community, shopping locally and attending events,” Shively said.
Shane Weldy knows all about the hard hurt the economic downturn has visited upon Wakarusa families. He had been selling insurance for home warranties to local real estate agencies when the recession killed his career. Since then he and his wife, Charlotte, opened The New To You resale shop on Elkhart Street and also work part-time jobs as well to get by.
“Four hundred jobs is a lot,” Weldy said. “If we can get people to move to town it would be great for the community.”
He said people visit his store all the time who say they would like to live in Wakarusa. Now, with jobs being created in town, Weldy believes that will help sell homes.
“It’s definitely going to help the market,” he said.