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As Elkhart's Electric Dreams Fizzle, RVs Come Back
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As Elkhart's Electric Dreams Fizzle, RVs Come Back

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As Elkhart's Electric Dreams Fizzle, RVs Come Back
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The city of Elkhart, Indiana is known as the RV capital of the world.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not such a great thing to be three years ago, when the recession hit and demand for recreational vehicles came to a screeching halt. Elkhart saw its unemployment rate soar to 20 percent, which was the highest in the nation at that time.

MONTAGNE: President Obama has gone to Elkhart twice, promising stimulus funding to kick-start the manufacturing of electric vehicles. As NPR's David Schaper reports, those jobs haven't materialized, but the economy of Elkhart is slowly recovering.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: From the outside, the Think Electric Vehicle factory in Elkhart, Indiana looks deserted. There's not a single car in the parking lot. The doors are all locked, the windows dark. It's not until you wander all the way around to the back of this 200,000-square-foot facility that there's a sign of life: one door left slightly ajar. And inside, several dozen brightly colored tiny electric cars sit in neat rows. Rodney Smith is the supervisor of this plant for the company Think EV.

RODNEY SMITH: All these cars are finished.

SCHAPER: All of these? The red and the black ones?

SMITH: Red, blue and black - they're all finished and ready to go. We could hop in one of these and go down the road right now.

SCHAPER: There are about 120 of these road-ready models, called the Think City - a little two-seat, fully electric coupe that has a range of about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged. Smith says there are 32 more cars yet fully assembled, waiting for parts to come in. When they do, he and another worker finish putting the cars together.

SMITH: That's currently what we're doing. We're just in a standby position. And we're continuing to sell cars. We're continuing to produce cars. It's just the two of us that are here.

SCHAPER: That's right, just two employees work in this auto plant. It's a far cry from the more than 400 people the Think company promised it would hire two years ago. Backed by federal stimulus funding, Think announced plans to produce thousands of electric cars in Elkhart. Other companies promised to make cars and trucks and their parts here, too, as Elkhart County set out to jump-start its flat-lining economy with electric vehicles.

GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS: Our goal is to be the capital of this potentially massive industry of tomorrow.

SCHAPER: That's Indiana's Republican governor Mitch Daniels in his 2010 State of the State address. But two years later, Elkhart's electric buzz has gone all but gone bust. Some of the start-ups never started up. There are batteries and electric trucks being made, but at nowhere near the level anticipated. Think has only sold about 200 of the cars assembled at Elkhart, while its parent company, Think Global of Norway, filed for bankruptcy last summer.

MAYOR DICK MOORE: They're still here, but the results were not anywhere near what we thought they would be.

SCHAPER: That's Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore.

MOORE: I thought there could be a thousand jobs in that plant as this thing took off.

SCHAPER: Clearly, that hasn't happened.

MOORE: Perhaps, we as Americans just can't get over the enjoyment and the love that we have behind the wheel of a big, powerful automobile. Maybe that's a part of our problem. I don't know.

SCHAPER: But even those interested in driving small, quiet electric vehicles have concerns about the battery life and the range, as well as the cost. The Think cars are rather expensive for such a tiny little thing, more than $40,000 before government tax credits and incentives. Think has a troubled financial history, too, and faces growing competition in the electric car market. Meanwhile, there's been a surprisingly strong rebirth of sorts in what had been a moribund industry making recreational vehicles.

STEVE BOWEN: This is a one-of-a-kind machine.

SCHAPER: Steve Bowen is showing off a new saw that is cutting pieces of composite siding for RVs on the floor of the Vixen Composites factory in Elkhart.

BOWEN: We make a lightweight composite panel. We can paint it any color you want it. We can cut it any size you want it.

SCHAPER: Demand for such RV components is up, and many factories in and around Elkhart are humming once again and hiring.

GREGG FORE: Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

SCHAPER: Gregg Fore is president of Vixen's parent company, the Dicor Corporation, and is always chairman of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Fore says the industry's downturn was brutal, with business falling off close to 60 percent. But demand for RVs, he says, has come back strong. Last year, the industry produced more than 250,000 RVs. That's 100,000 more units than the low-water mark in 2009. And Fore believes the market for motor homes, travel trailers and campers is here to stay.

FORE: People are still going to enjoy the lake, their kids, their relatives, the other campers, their beer, their ballgames, their hot dogs. That's the way it's going to be.

SCHAPER: Among the lessons of the deep recession: RV manufacturers now offer more lower-cost models, as well as more lightweight, fuel-efficient and green RVs. But one thing that hasn't changed, says Fore, is that the fortunes of this city of 51,000 just south of the Michigan border are intricately linked to this one industry. How much so? Consider this: Nearly half of all of the jobs in Elkhart County are in manufacturing. In fact, no county in the country has a greater share of its jobs in manufacturing than Elkhart. And fully half of the manufacturing jobs here are in making RVs and their parts. Turning to electric vehicles to try to diversify the economy made some sense, as Elkhart is centrally located, has plenty of factory space, a supply chain in place and a ready workforce.

DORINDA HEIDEN-GUSS: It was a risk.

SCHAPER: But Dorinda Heiden-Guss of Elkhart County's Economic Development Corporation says at the time, it was a risk worth taking.

HEIDEN-GUSS: We were the highest unemployment rate in the entire country. We did not have any other opportunities of this significance that we were pursuing at the time.

SCHAPER: Heiden-Guss and others hope Indiana-made electric cars can still take off, but the heavy focus on this new, unproven industry rubs some in Elkhart the wrong way.

MICHAEL PIERCE: It didn't work out. It's obvious it didn't work out.

SCHAPER: Michael Pierce is an account manager for a supplier to the RV industry, enjoying a beer and a burger at a popular Elkhart bar called Wings Etc.

PIERCE: You know, the president comes here - and no disrespect to the president, but, you know, when you got the leader of the whole country here and he's promising you this and promising you that and it doesn't happen, it's pretty disheartening.

SCHAPER: Actually, the administration delivered what it promised: grants to companies wanting to make electric vehicles. It's those companies that haven't delivered the jobs. And others say Elkhart needed to try something new as the economy here still suffers. On Friday nights like this one, Wings used to be packed, with a line out the door. But on this night, there are still several empty tables. Mark Elliott, who works in maintenance in a manufacturing plant, says the recent uptick in Elkhart is somewhat disappointing.

MARK ELLIOTT: I think the problem with our economy here is the jobs are coming back, but the wages is almost cut in half, am I right? I mean, you go back from - you had a job at 1,200 a week, and now you're going back to 600 a week. So what good did that do you?

SCHAPER: And others around Elkhart say while there are now many fewer people out of work, they're still nervous about the future. With gas prices headed up, they worry that the RV industry, and thus the economy here in Elkhart, could tank again. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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