Editor’s Note: This is the latest story produced by NBC.com which is doing an in-depth study on Elkhart County, Ind. This story was published in The Elkhart Truth.
Outsiders puzzled that a smart, career-oriented young woman would return after college to a place that many of her school chums couldn’t wait to leave should consider Elkhart native Angie Recchio’s story.
In 2000, at 23, just finished with her work in human development and family studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Recchio returned to town with a stack of bills and a dream of settling in her own home along one of Elkhart’s elegant, tree-lined streets.
She said she was the only one of four girls who went from nursery school through high school together who had that vision. “All of them wanted to get out,” she said. And they did.
“I lived in my mom’s basement, paid off my credit cards and all my loans, and a year and half later I bought my first house,” said Recchio. The immaculate two-bedroom bungalow sits in a Beaver Cleaver neighborhood a stone’s throw from East Jackson Boulevard, where brick mansions and sprawling ramblers guard the banks of the St. Joe River.
The house would not be considered a “starter” for a single wage-earner fresh out of college in most parts of the country. In Elkhart, however, the price was $83,000, a little more than half the U.S. median home price in both 2000 and today. A few years later, Recchio was able to add a rental property to her portfolio.
To Recchio and other residents, Elkhart’s attractions go far beyond cheap real estate. And they believe those features, which include a powerful sense of community and the tendency of residents to look out for one another, are what will see the town through the current economic storm.
A ‘special’ place
“It’s special in all the ways where you live is special to you,” said Recchio, 33, single and a sales rep for a company that serves the battered RV industry.
Family and faith come first in her life, as they do for many townspeople. In Elkhart she is among relatives, including her parents and an older brother, as well as lifelong friends. Raised a Catholic, she is a member of St. Vincent’s, but also attends services at a Methodist church.
The town is clean and safe, she said, and the schools – she attended Pinewood Elementary, Northside Middle and Central High – are good. Elkhart’s performing arts center, river walk and numerous parks are the envy of similar sized cities.
“But statistically speaking,” Recchio acknowledged, “the unemployment rate is what it is.” Currently, it’s among the highest in the nation at 19.2%, having quadrupled since last year, when high gas prices sent sales of RVs into the tank.
At her firm, Valley Screen Process Co. Inc, which makes decals for RVs and boats, the slump resulted in a drop in orders and layoffs.
But Recchio, who kept her job, is concerned that Elkhart’s economic problems have been singled out too often and too superficially by journalists who descended after President Obama came here in February to push his stimulus plan.
“If it has affected anybody’s business or job in a negative way, I feel bad for them, she said. “But we’re just a small example of a greater problem. We’re going through the same thing the rest of the country is.”
‘It will come back’
Outsiders need to know that “we had some really high highs. … I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to where we were or how long it will take, but certainly it will come back stronger than it is today.”
She is not counting on federal stimulus programs. “I don’t think my confidence really has anything to do with the government,” she said. “I think you have to let the free market economy and capitalism work because that’s what works.”
For now, she said, “We’re pulling together like a community in ways I’ve never seen before. … The people who are still employed are feeling that sense of responsibility to be more involved and give more and support to businesses that are still open.” She said she has seen an increase in church and community outreach to families via food drives and other programs.
Elkhart “is a better place to be broke than anyplace else,” she added. “You don’t see people sleeping under bridges here.”
With a decade of living her dream behind her, when Recchio looks ahead to the next 10 years, she can envision more ups and downs in the area’s economy but doesn’t see much changing in the fundamentals that drew her home after college.
“I imagine it will be much the same as it is now,” she said. “I’m happy, I’m surrounded by my family. There’s not a thing I need that God hasn’t given me or provided for me.”