There’s been talk lately that Elkhart County might portend the economic climate to come.
As the nation’s economy fell into freefall in 2008, Elkhart County was one of the hardest hit in the state, not to mention the U.S. Elkhart for months upon months had the highest unemployment rate in Indiana. Elkhart’s unemployment rate reached a high of 22 percent in March 2009. Had Elkhart’s numbers been more prevalent across the country, the Great Recession could very likely ended up the Great Depression II.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
We as a nation, and many media outlets, wised up after the Great Recession and have started looking to Elkhart and neighboring counties, like LaGrange, as a barometer of not only Indiana’s economy, particularly manufacturing, but the nation’s economy.
As our LaGrange Bureau Chief, Patrick Redmond, reports in today’s newspaper the dipping recreational vehicle industry might be a harbinger of what’s to come.
Recent coverage, from Indiana newspapers and television stations to national media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump. The president has used the media as his foil, saying it has moved on to the next big issue (the next dose of fake news, as he might say) to try to undermine his administration.
Unfortunately, as Redmond’s reporting has shown, the downturn in the RV industry is real.
It used to be you could see RVs produced by our friends and neighbors heading out to dealerships across the country on a daily basis, traveling east and west on U.S. 20 and the same directions on S.R. 120. The same holds for the Indiana Toll Road and highways heading north and south. And it wasn’t random, it was regular, all day long.
Redmond is used to seeing RV traffic from his home venue in LaGrange. It had become so routine that he and others in our area who live along, work near or frequent these highways didn’t notice that the traffic has died down. While working on his story on the industry Redmond spent much time waiting along U.S. 20 so he could shoot a photo to go with his story. It wasn’t easy. What had been the routine has become rare.
And it didn’t start just the past few weeks when more and more media have hopped on to the story. It started at least a year ago, as reported, ominously, on Sept. 11, 2018, in The New York Times.
Elkhart, The Times report said, “calls itself the ‘RV Capital of the World’ — more than 80 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States are made in Elkhart and the surrounding area, according to the RV Industry Association — and Mr. Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are increasing costs, diminishing demand and causing concern that a 10-year boom cycle could be waning.”
The Reuters news agency has reported the RV industry has taken hits from the U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum on scores of Chinese-made RV parts.
Here was the headline in The Times:
“As Elkhart, Ind., Goes, So Goes the Nation, and Elkhart Is Nervous.”
We have moved beyond nervous from a year ago, and the economic policy out of Washington bears some of the blame.
The party of free trade needs to get back to its roots.
Last decade, we saw much hurt in Elkhart County and beyond. And the nation learned about it in local and national papers when President Obama put a spotlight on our area. Things have changed.
As The Times put it, “This city near the Michigan border has long been used as a political prop — first by President Obama, then by President Trump — to express concern for the downtrodden and to make a claim on newfound prosperity.”
The good times seem to be waning. We don’t know if this downturn can be halted, but it can’t hurt to ease up on the tariffs that have hurt not only our farmers, but our family and friends who work in the RV industry.
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Dave Kurtz, Grace Housholder, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board. We welcome readers’ comments.