Elkhart County recovers to number-one in job growth

New numbers from the economic front have Elkhart County leading the way in terms of job growth for 2012.

According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS) Elkhart County experienced 7.4 percent growth between Dec. 2011-2012 compared to the national average of 1.9 percent. Within the boundaries of the county the manufacturing industry was the fastest driver of growth—adding 5,479 jobs.

President and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, Dorinda Heiden-Guss called the ranking “fantastic news.”

“Our mission is to create an economically vibrant community by recruiting, maintaining and strengthening our economic base and being a catalyst for diversification, and economic change,” added Heiden-Guss.

Diversification of industry is what the county has been working on since the big recession hit in 2008-2009. Elkhart County was devastated, reaching unemployment rates of 15.3 percent and gaining national media attention.

The local economy is heavily entrenched in the RV manufacturing industry. When wallets tightened and many folks lost their disposable income the RV industry took a turn for the worst.

“Yes, we were leading the nation in jobs lost but there’d come a time where we’d lead the nation in jobs gained” said Chamber of Commerce President, Kyle Hannon. That time is now.

Due to the strength of the RV industry, marine vehicle industry and boating industry, Elkhart County has seen resurgence in economic activity. Heiden-Guss said now that job growth is improving and the RV industry is once again lucrative emphasis is turning towards a “paradigm shift.”

“We're looking to diversify more than we have historically so that when we have those economic swings we're not paralyzed like we've been in the past.” The official pursuit of diversification will not be decided until this September but Hannon and Heiden-Guss say the county has the technology, transportation and government-necessary infrastructure to boom.

But how exactly does a county diversify?

Heiden-Guss says the county has historically worked with existing manufacturers, working with suppliers and solid customer bases as a starting point. Then, it works with utility companies, railroads and site selectors to draw expanding companies to the area.

“If we strengthen and develop those relationships we're hoping to be more attractive to others outside the area,” that and work with municipalities to incentivize business said Heiden-Guss.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the word “incentive.” Many assume incentives involve writing a check or giving a company direct cash, but according to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), that is just contrary to reality.

The EDC goes through government approval processes for both local, property tax-based incentives, and state, income tax-based incentives. Local governments review three criteria including number of potential jobs, the wages of those jobs and investment in both real and personal property before giving out incentives.

Beyond financial incentives, Heiden-Guss says Elkhart County has intangible incentives like a good quality of life, above-average living standards, attractive government structures and an active workforce.

Elkhart County’s location is ideal for new industry, something Heiden-Guss said factored into the job growth. Between I-80/90 and investment in roads and equipment, the county is designed to move personnel and products easily.

Over the past few years the economic climate in Elkhart County has been improving. Businesses are leaner and more efficient. The Chamber of Commerce is looking at processes for job creation and figuring out where people are running to red tape.

“We’re always looking to attract any business that's interested in coming here, and they should,” said Hannon. According to Hannon, the county is well-positioned for logistics and additional light-manufacturing facilities.

“We would like more high tech, more bio-medical, but that's every community in the country wants that,” said Hannon, so Elkhart is looking for ways to be more attractive to high-tech entrepreneurs.

But part of Elkhart County’s secret to success is maintaining industry within county limits. Recently Thor and Drews relocated their headquarters to Elkhart. Hannon notes during economic downturns companies tend to consolidate to their home base—that is why he wants more headquarters in the area.

It’s just one way to “recession-proof” a county that tends to feel the highs and lows of consumer spending before the rest of the county.

“I think what happens now, is that it's not just the RV industry that's bounced back, not just the boat industry that has bounced back, as we visit members all of them are doing better,” Hannon added. In a ripple effect as one industry improves, wages raise and business spreads to other parts of the local economy. Hannon and Heiden-Guss are hopeful that Elkhart County can maintain its number one position for the long-term.

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