President Barack Obama used Elkhart, Ind., as the national symbol of a town in need, according to a report by Bloomberg.
So far, for this city with a 19% jobless rate, his promise of economic relief has been more a tangle of red tape and conflict between state and local governments over spending priorities than an engine of recovery, local officials say.
Elkhart, like many manufacturing towns in the industrial Midwest, offers some lessons as the public begins to examine the biggest spending program in U.S. history and assess how fast it can revive an economy mired in recession.
“The true intention of the program is being lost” said Mayor Dick Moore, who is concerned that the state will direct funds elsewhere. “The intention was to send the money back to those places that are the most economically distressed.”
Elkhart is especially vulnerable because its economy depends on recreational vehicle makers, which have been hit hard by high gasoline prices and the recession. Still, the state-versus municipality struggle is being replayed throughout the country as states direct funds to interstate repairs instead of cities like Elkhart devastated by the slump in the auto industry, said Len Simon, a lobbyist hired by the city.
“It’s all based on the ability of the mayor to get a good deal from the governor,” said Simon.
Elkhart had prepared better than most communities, with city planners assembling a $92 million wish list of projects to create 2,310 jobs and building a chart of deadlines and tips for securing federal funds.
To date, about $1.4 million is making its way to the city of 52,000, about 100 miles southeast of Chicago. Moore doesn’t know how much Elkhart will ultimately receive, so he hasn’t hired contractors for its ‘shovel-ready’ projects.
Moore, a Democrat who stood on stage with Obama when the president visited Elkhart on Feb. 9, is heading to Indianapolis today (March 18) to appeal to Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican. Bloomberg reported that the Indiana Department of Transportation controls $440 million in federal funds for roads and bridges, while localities will receive less than half that amount.
“Elkhart gets a share of the share,” said Simon. “It starts to get small.”
Jane Jankowski, a spokeswoman for Daniels, said the state is “trying to sort through a lot of those same things to find answers to questions about how this will all be working.” She said 40 counties will be aided by the 55 highway infrastructure projects they’ve announced so far.
White House officials say the city needs to be patient because help is on the way.
Obama may have fanned the city’s hopes for relief by making it the poster child for his economic stimulus bill. He scheduled his first primetime news conference the same day he traveled there, highlighting his trip in his opening remarks and mentioning it at least six times. During the next few days, he kicked off town hall meetings in Florida and Virginia by talking about Elkhart.
Yet even a month before Obama was elected, the mayor and city engineer had already crafted a list of projects they hoped to fund. Among them: $17 million for renovating a historic theater, $34 million for a railroad overpass, $10.5 million for airport updates and $5.5 million for street repairs. All could begin in 30 to 90 days.