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Obama visits job-starved Elkhart, Indiana

Category: Elkhart, RV, Obama
Source: USA Today
Publish Date: Monday, February 9, 2009
Summary: On Monday, President Obama traveled to this depressed northern Indiana city to highlight what's at stake as his $800-billion-plus economic stimulus bill is debated in Congress.

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By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
ELKHART, Ind. — Derald Bontrager's mom and dad started the RV company he now runs with his brother in 1968. For nearly four decades, the family could hardly make pop-up campers, travel trailers and motor homes fast enough for their eager customers. Today, the once-thriving company is in a free fall.

In the past eight months, as gas prices soared and credit dried up, "the market just went away," Bontrager says. He and his brother have had to lay off half their workforce, more than 1,000 employees, including 250 last week. And he knows the men and women he sees in church and at the store won't be able to find other work.

"Wilbur (his brother) and I personally know many of these people," Bontrager says. "That's what stings the most, having to take away their livelihood."

Layoffs are happening across the USA — but nowhere as fast as in this once-thriving area that used to be known as the "RV Capital of the World." One year ago, unemployment in Elkhart County was at 4.7%. Today, it's the highest in the nation at 15.3%, fueled largely by the rapid decline in the recreational vehicle business.

On Monday, President Obama traveled to this depressed northern Indiana city to highlight what's at stake as his $800-billion-plus economic stimulus bill is debated in Congress.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama wanted to go where the nation's economic problems are "acute" as part of his "his effort to convince Congress to move swiftly."

This area did not vote for Obama in November, but The Elkhart Truth newspaper is on board with that message now. "President Obama needs to help Congress understand that the stimulus package isn't about politics. It's about survival," the newspaper said in a Sunday editorial.

Monday's visit was Obama's third trip to Elkhart — he stopped by twice during the presidential campaign — but his first trip outside Washington as president to meet face-to-face with average citizens.

Free tickets to the Concord High School town-hall-style meeting were handed out first-come-first-served starting at noon Saturday. People were lined up before 7 a.m. and the tickets were gone by early afternoon.

On Monday, 1,700 area residents packed the school's gym, where a huge American flag hung against a wall behind the stage.

Greg McMullen, a steelworker from Ft. Wayne, Ind., said he came to Elkhart to show support for Obama. He said he wants the president to know that "the union worker's got his back."

Anita Hawkins, 32, of Elkhart, who has a job working with the disabled, says she knows many people who have either lost their jobs ore had their hours and pay reduced. She said she wants to hear how Obama will "get people back on their feet." Her friend, Cora Brown, 51, also of Elkhart, runs a local ministry for the needy. She said she came to the town hall to see "how he's gonna bless Elkhart."

Residents here have seen property values plummet and foreclosure rates rise. Area church congregations are taking up donations for unemployed parishioners, and local TV stations are running ads telling people how to get to food banks. Concern goes far beyond the 1,700 who gathered to hear Obama.

"People who have never had to ask for assistance are having to," says Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat in this largely Republican area.

Unemployment in the city of Elkhart (population 52,000) has hit 18%, he says.

"That's a pretty tough number," Moore says. "People are hanging in there, but … I don't think we've hit the bottom yet."

That's what keeps Bontrager up at night worrying about how to make sure Jayco, his Middlebury, Ind., company, doesn't have to be shut down.

"It's the uncertainty of the future," he says.

When gas prices shot up and RV sales went down in the early 1970s, he says his family knew the cause of the problem and knew prices would drop. This time, it feels like the economic problems run deeper, and "things are beyond our control."

It feels that way to Ed Neufeldt, a father of seven who lost his $20-an-hour job in September. He had been building RVs at Monaco Coach for 32 years when his boss came out of a meeting in tears and announced that the company was closing its plant, putting 1,400 out of work.

Neufeldt, 62, has two children living at home, and two of his grown daughters and their husbands — all four also RV industry workers — are out of work as well.

When his unemployment runs out next month, "I don't know what I'm going to do," Neufeldt says. "I've been trying to find a job, but there aren't any jobs out there. I can't even get a minimum-wage job."

He didn't vote for Obama, but he's backing him now. In fact, Neufeldt will introduce the president at Monday's town-hall-style meeting. "Sometimes you don't care too much for the coach," he says, "but you're praying for him to win."

Moore, who has been to Washington once to lobby the state's representatives in Congress for a share of the money, says Obama's visit "will be uplifting," coming just a week after Jayco's layoffs and 350 more at Keystone RV.

Nawab Manjee also sees it as an opportunity.

Manjee, 24, who owns a commercial real estate company in nearby Granger, got four tickets on Saturday and promptly put a pair up on Craigslist, the classified ads website, for $1,000. He wants to use the money to help make payroll for his struggling company.

By late Sunday, he had several offers, but none had met his asking price.

"We're doing anything and everything to stay afloat," Manjee says. "I'm way too young to fail."

He started his business buying, renovating and reselling or renting commercial properties right out of college in 2006. He had 28 employees and dreams of expanding.

In the past 14 months, he says, "construction projects just stopped." Now, he can't sell or lease his buildings. He has cut his staff down to five employees, and they work only five hours a day. The occupancy rate for his buildings has gone from 85% to 26%.

"Things have gotten really, really bad here," he says.

He and some friends came up with another idea to make money off Obama's appearance: selling coffee and T-shirts outside today's event.

"Anything we can do to survive right now," he says.

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