It’s been a wild ride for Elkhart County workers since The Great Recession.
Back then I was watching the monthly recreational vehicle stats and noticed a dip in shipment growth in 2006 and a 9 percent downturn in 2007. But the dip didn’t seem to indicate the trouble to come.
Then the banking crisis dropped from the sky in 2008 and fell heavily on the industry.
Our news staff covered the depressing weekly layoffs at local factories that produced recreational vehicles and supplies for that industry. The banking crisis dried up credit. And the few consumers who had cash on hand were reluctant to spend it on luxury items, including RVs. Consumers who wanted to borrow money for a new travel trailer or motorhome found banks had tightened loan qualification standards.
RV shipments fell 32.9 percent in 2008 and then dropped another 30.1 percent in 2009.
As a result of those dips, unemployment rocketed here. By March 2009 the jobless rate in the Elkhart-Goshen Metropolitan Statistical Area topped out at 18.9 percent.
But things have changed drastically for the better. The good times have returned and the RV industry is super hot.
In February the local unemployment rate was 3.3 percent. “Help wanted” and “hiring now” signs are prevalent in storefronts and along the roads in industrial parks.
During the past few months I have marveled at how far the local economy has come since The Great Recession.
Last week I drove up to Bristol’s new Universal Trailer Corp. factory. While taking the plant tour I marveled at the combination of automation and human skills to produce the company’s cargo trailers. While robotic welders were in use, the machines still had to be fed by hand and human welders were busy joining steel that the robots could not reach.
The company has hired 50 people so far and will be adding more workers as shifts are added.
Genesis Products broke ground March 22 on a 200,000-square-foot facility in the Goshen Industrial Park. The company’s laminated panels are mostly used in the RV industry.
One of the most significant developments in Goshen in recent years may be the one offered by Greg Hoogenboom. Back in January, Hoogenboom’s development company, Hoogenboom-Nofziger, started construction on a 20,000-square-foot industrial building. As far as anyone could recall back then, it was the first local industrial building to be erected on speculation in many years. The building is intended to get the ball rolling on filling up the company’s 10-lot industrial park, Waterford Commons Business Park.
Also in January, Forest River, a maker of recreational vehicles, said it would create 425 jobs this year and in 2018 by opening four new plants in LaGrange.
Thor Industries’ Heartland subsidiary is also expanding this year. The company is adding production space to build more travel trailers, fifth wheels and toy haulers at its Elkhart, Middlebury, Howe and Nampa, Idaho campuses.
Last year Thor expanded production capacity at its Thor Motor Coach subsidiary by purchasing a factory building in Bristol.
The above projects are bullet points in a longer list of local companies and retailers that are taking part in our nation’s expanding economy. While there will always be some churn with local companies coming and going, overall our economy is enjoying extraordinary success.
We should count ourselves very fortunate.
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