The national attention thrust onto Indiana’s Elkhart County since President Barack Obama’s visit there on Monday (Feb. 9) has generated an unusual number of industrial prospects, according to the county’s economic development director.
“Last week, I was working with five clients, which is wonderful in my world,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Elkhart County.
After plans for Obama’s visit to Elkhart became public and the community’s plight became more widely known, her telephone lit up.
“I received 28 voice-mails and nine referred to potential businesses, from start-ups to expansions,” she said.
About 20% were from inside the county, the rest were from outside the county, she said. She said the callers are not just “tire kickers” but appear to be sincere industrial prospects.
“With the global economic times, we did not anticipate the activity or interest that is coming forward,” she conceded. “These businesses do in fact cover a wide range of product.”
The EDC’s confidentiality policy keeps her from divulging additional details, she said.
However, in a related matter, she did confirm that she will be speaking before the Elkhart County Council Saturday on behalf of an existing company, a commercial seat manufacturer, that is looking for a tax phase-in (abatement) to help fund an expansion.
The EDC lists on its website, www.elkhartcountybiz.com, 49 infrastructure-served commercial buildings of 30,000 square feet or larger available for sale or lease. The area under roof for the 49 exceeds 4.2 million square feet. Topping the list are two Monaco Coach Corp. plants covering 700,000 square feet on a 70-acre site in Wakarusa.
A great percentage of the buildings on the county’s inventory were built to specs conducive to the RV industry, Heiden-Guss noted.
“Just the fact we are getting so many positive responses speaks well of the media being able to make things known,” said David Switzer, EDC chairman and a representative of Indiana and Michigan Power, an electrical supplier to the Elkhart area. “This was more than a state or countrywide message. It is now known worldwide that Elkhart has been hit hard by the recession and economic downturn, but is fighting hard. Hopefully, that message gets through: that we have a work force that is willing to get back to work. That is what we would like to see happen.”
Until the recession hit, Elkhart County was one of the most industrialized counties in the U.S., with at least 50% of its work force engaged in manufacturing, of which 25% was RV-related. Those percentages have diminished in recent months as the county’s unemployment rate hit 15.3% in December, with many of those losses in manufacturing.
Switzer noted the risk that all the attention – CNN labeled Elkhart the “poster child for the nation’s economic downturn” – will become a liability that industrial prospects will not want to locate there. However, Switzer said the positive attention Elkhart County received far outweighs the negative press.