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Signs of Economic Life in Elkhart, Indiana

Signs of Economic Life in Elkhart, Indiana

By Mike Memoli - December 4, 2009

President Obama travels to Allentown, Pa., today for the first in a planned series of events meant to "take the temperature on what Americans are experiencing during these challenging economic times." The so-called White House to Main Street tour follows Thursday's jobs summit in Washington, part of a renewed focus by the administration on reversing nagging unemployment.

In Elkhart, Ind., meanwhile, attention is focused not on Washington but Louisville, where the Recreational Vehicle Industry Trade Show is taking place. The area's economy is largely dependent on RV manufacturing, and when business nosedived as the recession began, unemployment skyrocketed. With good news emerging from the event in the form of boosted sales projections, a town that Obama has twice visited as a symbol of the national recession is increasingly optimistic that the worst is behind it.

"Things are definitely improving," said Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat. "I say that we're walking out of a recession -- we're not yet running out of it, but we're walking out of it -- and probably a little bit sooner than what some economic experts had predicted."

Obama first came to Elkhart as president in February when he kicked off his campaign to sell his proposed stimulus package. Unemployment then had risen sharply and rapidly to nearly 19 percent, the highest in the nation. When he visited the area again in August, the president said, "Elkhart has been hit with a perfect storm of economic troubles." That second visit to announce a new Recovery Act program was meant to highlight the success of the administration's signature economic package.

Now, unemployment in Elkhart is down to 15.9 percent according to one estimate, marking slow but steady progress at a time when other areas still see increases. Moore says there's no doubt that the Recovery Act has helped, though he concedes most of those federal dollars went toward local government and not the RV industry.

"We sell our products all over this country. As people are starting to go back to work and the economy's starting to pick up, I see that as a great benefit for our area," he said.

Locally, though, as is the case across the country, others are unconvinced that the Recovery Act has driven the rebound here.

"I don't think you can draw any causal connection between stimulus and the optimism in the local economy," said Chris Riley, an Elkhart resident and chair of the neighboring St. Joseph County Republican Party. He, too, pointed to the recovery in the RV industry, and said that just as the area was the first to feel the effects of the recession, it is among the first to climb out.

He also credits an infrastructure program launched at the state level by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) before Obama took office. The federal government added to deficits in funding the Recovery Act; Daniels chose to lease the state's toll road system years ago, providing billions in immediate revenue for the state that was immediately put to work in his "Major Moves" initiative.

"Everybody uses the phrase shovel-ready -- those actually were shovel-ready projects that are ongoing," Riley said.

$131 million has been spent in Elkhart County through the state program on major roads projects, while just $52 million has been spent through the Recovery Act, the lion's share in the form of aid to local governments. The Recovery Act Web site reports that just 44 jobs created through the program in the county.

Moore, however, said the spotlight that Obama shone on his town has also been critical, and given it a platform as it seeks to diversify the local economy and draw in new businesses. In addition to personal meetings with the president, the mayor says he has a direct line to Vice President Biden's office to raise concerns and seek additional help.

Obama chose to start his new economic barnstorming tour in Allentown because, like Elkhart, it's "a place where people are really feeling some of the economic pain that's going on across the country," White House spokesman Bill Burton said. While some criticize the trip and the jobs summit as a PR stunt, Burton countered that it's a genuine effort to "get all the ideas he can get from folks across the political spectrum" in an effort to create jobs.

Though another stop to Elkhart is not planned yet, Moore says he expects to see the president again in the near future. He also hopes to meet with him again next month when he visits Washington for a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering.

"I'd like to tell him what I'm telling you -- a simple thank you," Moore said. "The program's helping us out a great deal. We're also helping ourselves, but I think without the [stimulus] money it would have been a lot slower than where it is."

Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at mmemoli@realclearpolitics.com

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