RV industry vital to Elkhart County's economic resurgence
When the recession hit, it hit Michiana's largest industry, the RV industry, hard. RV sales declined, factories closed, and workers lost their jobs. Now, the RV business is back and better than ever.
More than 80 percent of all RVs in the world are built in Elkhart County, and RV manufacturers in the county make up eight of the 10 largest employers.
At the height of the recession Jayco sales dropped 60 percent, and they had to lay off more than half of their workers.
“We were dealing with a lot of lives of people who we employed, who we saw every day on the street who we just couldn’t employ. It was hard,” said Derald Bontrager, President and CEO of Jayco.
Thousands of RV workers lost their jobs, and Elkhart County’s unemployment skyrocketed to the highest in the country, a staggering 20.3 percent in March of 2009.
Barack Obama even made his first stop as president at Concord Middle School in Elkhart for a town hall meeting on how to spark an economic recovery.
Fast forward to today and the RV business is booming. The industry shipped a record 504.599 units in 2017, which is triple the number from 2009.
“We’re stronger today than we’ve ever been,” said Mark Dobson, President of the Elkhart County Economic Development Corporation.
Dobson is thrilled by the rebound in Elkhart's economy.
The unemployment rate is now just 2.2 percent in Elkhart County, and companies are struggling to hire enough workers.
This is one reason President Donald Trump held a campaign style rally at the North Side gym this month.
“You’re making Indiana proud and we are all making America Proud,” President Trump said.
Despite this, Dobson worries another recession could hit, or gas prices could skyrocket again.
“There’s always that ‘yeah but’ mentality in Elkhart County. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop," Dobson said.
Bontrager is optimistic the industry learned some difficult lessons about streamlining production, cutting costs and saving for the next economic hit.
“It’s going to happen at some point, but I believe our industry’s stronger and smarter. I see nothing but blue sky ahead for the industry,” Bontrager said.
In March, the industry had its best month on record and shipped more than 50,000 units.