RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The aftershocks of the economic crisis hit one Midwest city hard. Elkhart, Indiana, is a manufacturing town that saw its unemployment rate rise to nearly 20 percent last year. But as well hear in the next few minutes, some entrepreneurs there are optimistic that Elkhart can come back, and one is dreaming big. Where some see a Rust Belt town in decline, he sees the perfect spot for a balmy vacation getaway.
NPRs Chris Arnold has more.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
CHRIS ARNOLD: Im walking through the snow at the edge of a field here in Elkhart County, and right now there's just some corn stubble from last years crop and a highway nearby, some woods over there. But the plan is to transform this area into a tropical paradise. Theyre talking about building some giant glass domes here that would cover indoor pools and rivers - and some kind of tropical forest. There'd be waterslides.
Mr. LEROY TROYER (Developer, Architect): We envision this and dream that this will be a totally new type of family attraction that we've not seen in America.
ARNOLD: That's Leroy Troyer, a local developer and architect.
Mr. TROYER: We plan to have about 100 amenities of activities, all the way from bowling to indoor basketball, tennis, soccer, miniature golf.
ARNOLD: There would also be 600 villas for tourists to stay in.
This wouldnt be a regular hotel with a swimming pool. Troyer pictures lush green areas with the villas nestled in the trees, and those giant glass domes rising, he says, like huge mushrooms.
Mr. TROYER: With the domes, can you just imagine the toadstool type of mushrooms, only they'd be gigantic big, like a full acre?
ARNOLD: OK, this might sound kind of crazy, and Troyer realizes that. But here's why it's actually not so crazy. Troyer is a successful local developer. Back at his office, he explains that for years, he's been trying to come up with ways to bring more tourists to Elkhart. And one day, a friend of his from Holland told him about these glass-domed resorts that they already have all over Europe.
Mr. TROYER: And he was real excited about it, how families come to this place, they stay for three, four days or a week. They have water and they have plants. They have villas. And the families come, unload their car, and the rest is a walking community.
ARNOLD: And they've become very popular in areas with cold winters.
Mr. TROYER: And that was a real wow to me.
Mr. ROBERT WEIJHENKE (Operations Manager): We have about 40 in Holland and about eight in the U.K., and about 10 in Germany, and about 15 in France.
ARNOLD: Robert Weijhenke has been in charge of operations for many of these resorts in Europe. He was with a company called Center Parcs. And Leroy Troyer, from here in Elkhart, tracked him down, flew to the Netherlands, and met with Weijhenke.
Mr. WEIJHENKE: We were very excited. We always have thought that America is a very good destination.
ARNOLD: And it turns out that Elkhart, Indiana, could be an especially good place. Weijhenke says that these resorts work as inexpensive family vacations that you can drive to.
Mr. WEIJHENKE: If you want to just relax for a couple of days, you just get into your car. You don't have the hassle to go to the airport with all the security.
ARNOLD: And Elkhart is between Chicago, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and it's got 35 million people within a three- or four-hour drive. That's more than twice the population of the Netherlands and there are 40 of these resorts there.
Mr. WEIJHENKE: Yeah, and we have an average occupancy between 85 and 90 percent all year round.
ARNOLD: Weijhenke has been working with Troyer on drawing up plans for the resort, which would be called Family Holiday Village Elkhart. They say it would create 500 jobs on site, and more jobs in the surrounding community.
(Soundbite of hammering)
ARNOLD: Workers are building modular homes inside of a warehouse run by Commodore Corporation. It's a local homebuilder that's been talking to the resort developers. Rod Davis, one of the managers, has overseen some heavy layoffs in recent years.
Mr. ROD DAVIS (Manager, Commodore Corporation): There was a guy, Jack, that worked up in final finish that - it was really hard to let him go because he had been here for a long time.
ARNOLD: Getting the contract to help build the resort would mean the company could hire back a lot of those workers.
Mr. DAVIS: It would be great to get this and have those people come back to work.
ARNOLD: Whether any of this is actually going to happen depends on coming up with $200 million that it will take to build this resort. And right now, banks and investors are not exactly throwing money at big construction projects. Still, the head finance officer says that he's in discussions with investors, and he hopes to see a groundbreaking sometime this year.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.