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.
The news of the Monaco jobs spread across the Internet and social media quickly Tuesday night, giving the unemployed hope and motivating them to get to Wakarusa early Wednesday to fill out an application despite the fact hiring won’t begin until the first half of 2012.
Jeff Clark had just arrived back in Goshen from West Virginia, where he sought economic refuge after losing his job at Keystone in Goshen during the recession. He had been working odd jobs and in coal mines, trying to make a living during tough times. Wednesday he was walking out of the Monaco office after filling out an application.
“I came back to where the money is at,” he said with a smile. He had put applications in at other local RV plants earlier in the week and was hopeful of landing a job at one of those. But he wanted to apply at Monaco, just in case.
At Keystone, Clark specialized in installing flooring in RVs.
“I was pulling down about $1,400 per week back then,” he said.
Then wages were cut and he ended up making about $10 per hour before his job was eliminated.
Others were also hopeful of landing a job at Monaco. In the company’s lobby, six people crouched over their job applications, spread out on coffee tables or on their knees. Each stole peeks at the competition now and then.
Riley Bryan of Millersburg was among them. He and his two friends woke early to make the trip to Wakarusa.
Bryan said he has been working temporary jobs since 2008 through the Forge jobs agency, but he needs full-time work.
“I am ready for a job title,” he said.
Lisa Hartenberger made the trip to Wakarusa from Navistar’s corporate headquarters in Lisle, Ill. Her job Wednesday was to answer questions from the many reporters who descended on the office and called for interviews.
“We will be ramping down operations in Oregon over a period of months,” she said, “and ramping up operations in Wakarusa in the first half of 2012.”
Navistar purchased the former Monaco Coach assets in June 2009 after that company went bankrupt. The name was changed to Monaco RV and some of the RV production was resumed in Oregon and Wakarusa. Hartenberger said Navistar’s ownership has been a great advantage to the RV consumer because the company has a lot of expertise in developing specialty vehicles that has been utilized in improving the Monaco products.
She said the company will invest $1 million in the Wakarusa plant. That money will cover computer software and hardware, furniture and equipment.
Navistar is moving the 400 jobs to Wakarusa, and in return it wants a property tax abatement from the Town Council.
Ron Berkey, council president, said the council heard about the new jobs after its meeting Tuesday night. He said there had been talk of jobs possibly coming, but nothing was official until late Tuesday.
He said the council will have a special meeting in the next couple of weeks to consider the abatement.
“I am glad to see them come back to town,” Berkey said. “A lot of people didn’t like the way they pulled out, but it’s their business, what are you going to do?”
While Utilimaster is adding jobs and other, much smaller companies have started up and added a few jobs, Berkey said there remains a need for more employment.
“There are still a lot of people around town that are out of a job,” he said.
And there is also plenty of underemployment.
“Some of those people are holding down two or three part-time jobs just to make it — if you are fortunate to find that many (part-time jobs),” he said.
Berkey is one of the lucky people who worked in the RV industry at its zenith. He retired eight years ago when RVs were hot items and workers were making top dollar. He worked 33 years at Monaco Coach. Now he spends time riding his bicycle around Wakarusa to stay in shape as well as helping the town by leading the council.
Because of the recession and following slow economy, the council has had to stop hiring college students for maintenance jobs in the summer and has also reduced the town’s budget by $250,000 to $300,000.
Berkey said his experiences lead him to believe there will be a limited recovery in the RV industry.
“It will come back in time, but it will never be what it was before,” he said. “I’ll put money on that.”