The national spotlight returned to Elkhart County Wednesday night (Jan. 27), as a network production crew out of Chicago and “20/20” correspondent Deborah Roberts from New York interviewed 16 Elkhart County residents after listening to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Roberts wanted to know what those Elkhart County residents had to say about the speech, coming as it did after several visits to the recession-riddled area by Obama, both as a candidate and as the nation’s chief executive.
In so doing, that TV news crew extended yet again the long-standing relationship between the national press and the northern Indiana RV-building center of Elkhart, a manufacturing-centric locale still known today for churning out musical instruments, pleasure boats and manufactured housing, among other things.
Although the Elkhart County group’s comments last night were reduced to a brief capsule report from Roberts after the speech, there’s a good chance, we’re told, that the nation will hear more from those Elkhart-area residents tonight – and perhaps Friday as well — on “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.”
Suffice to say that the atmosphere in the northern Indiana county is a whole bunch lighter than it was during Obama’s earlier visits, a fact that was underscored by the plant in which ABC chose to tape its citizen panel. The spacious facility was purchased last fall by Keystone, which has brought back more than 500 workers since the pit of the recession to bump its work force back up to about 2,700 from a pre-recession high of 3,100.
In fact, production was launched there around the first of the year amid a surging marketplace. “They’re (ABC) here because the President has been here so many times and you’ll see front and center (in the panel) even Ed Neufeldt, the former Monaco employee who introduced President Obama here (in the county) in February less than a year ago,” new Keystone President Bob Martin told RVBUSINESS.com. “It shows the contrast. Last year, things were so bad, and this year the RV industry’s definitely on the upswing for most. And for Keystone, we’re starting (to work) Saturdays. I mean, our production is ramping up. We see the year looking promising as it’s shaping up. Early shows have been promising. The RV industry’s definitely experiencing an upturn.”
The upturn in tow-type RVs is more than talk, says Martin, who has the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, which was first contacted by the network, to thank for the national publicity. “Yeah,” he added, “they (ABC) thought about doing it in an empty plant in Elkhart County. But they chose to show the positive side and show that plants are being filled and, you know, companies are getting strong again and I’m glad to be part of the positive aspect of the story.”
As for the panelists themselves, Kyle Hannon, vice president for public policy/media relations for the Chamber, told RVBUSINESS.com that he simply pulled together a diverse group of local individuals – several of whom are unemployed — through business, government and personal contacts with a blind eye to their respective political persuasions.
Indeed, their comments were diverse as well – not overly critical or complimentary of Obama, whose conciliatory sounding State of the Union remarks centered on jobs, taxes, spending freezes, education, health care and a new $30 billion program to funnel money at low rates to community banks agreeing to increase lending to small business.
“They’re happy with what they heard,” Roberts told network news anchor Diane Sawyer in her Wednesday night capsule report. “But there’s still a little skepticism here, Diane. These people are really hurt, and they want to see some action.”
Yes, there’s skepticism — mixed with a healthy portion of optimism and a general wish that Congressional partisanship – on both sides of the aisle – will cease.
“Well, I was glad to hear that he (Obama) had talked about some incentives to bring jobs back to our country vs. overseas,” said panelist John Thomas, who is in sales at Keystone’s own Sprinter Division, but had been laid off for nine months before returning in October to his job at Keystone. “You know, we need to have the banks loosen up a little with the money (credit). And the incentives from the government — you know the $30 billion that we’re going to put into that new program — that’s definitely needed. We have to get the consumers’ confidence up, which is starting to come around a little bit. Consumer confidence is key, at least in our industry.”
Keystone electrician David French, another panelist who was laid off for a time due to the recession and is now back to work at the company’s Alpine and Avalanche plant, said he’d settle for more bipartisanship as Obama had suggested. He said he hoped that the President was providing more than “lip service” toward that end.
“Basically, they (Congress) need a common sense approach,” French told RVBUSINESS.com. “They need to quit fighting amongst each other. Come together. I mean, get something done because there’s a lot of people that are suffering worse than I am. I was fortunate. I was blessed… I mean, it’s not about them (lawmakers). It’s about the United States as a whole.”
Sounding a similar tone was panelist Jeff Vander Vliet, laid off recently by Elkhart’s Hy-Line Enterprises Holdings LLC: “I’m skeptical,” he said. “You know, words are one thing. But being able to put action to those words is what’s really most important. You know, they say there’s a jobs bill, but what’s in the details and how’s that going to affect things here in Elkhart County. And in the industry, there are some bright spots, but what we’re looking for is some consistency – a positive trend where a lot of manufacturers are involved.”